Genre : Spy Fiction, Science Fiction, Alternate History
Publisher : Tachyon Publications
Length : 332 pages
Format : eARC
Rating : 4.5 stars
Publication Date : August 8th 2019 (first published in 2013)
A bold experiment has mutated a small fraction of humanity. Nations race to harness the gifted, putting them to increasingly dark ends. At the dawn of global war, flashy American superheroes square off against sinister Germans and dissolute Russians. Increasingly depraved scientists conduct despicable research in the name of victory
British agents Fogg and Oblivion, recalled to the Retirement Bureau, have kept a treacherous secret for over forty years. But all heroes must choose when to join the fray, and to whom their allegiance is owed—even for just one perfect summer’s day.
From the World Fantasy and Campbell award-winning author of Central Station comes a sweeping novel of history, adventure, and what it means to be a hero.
Set in an alternate reality where a German scientist created a machine that randomly gave some people superpowers, The Violent Century follows Fogg and Oblivion, two “changed” British agents working for the Bureau, a special service composed of people with special abilities.
The book opens up in the present-time, Fogg is at a bar, sipping a drink, when Oblivion appears in front of him. Both men used to work together but Fogg retired years ago while Oblivion decided to keep working for the Bureau under the command of the Old Man. They meet again because the Bureau need Foog to answer a couple of questions regarding to an old case. It’s now time for Fogg to reveal the truth he hid for decades.
In this world, the ones with special abilities are called the Changed. Some of them can manipulate the elements, turn things into dust, transforms into animals, or, like the Old Man, simply sense the presence of other Changed people. All of them have unique abilities but they are all affected in the same way by the experiment. They all seem to have frozen in time after being Changed. They don’t age, they don’t die unless they are killed, either by someone or by their own hands. Time flows and yet, they remain both unchanged and Changed.
This particular aspect of the story was fascinating to me. Indeed, one would imagine that that people with superpowers would be very useful war assets. Most of them serve their countries as soldiers, special forces or intelligence agents so they are all, in their own ways, involved in various conflict starting from World War II to the war in Afghanistan. They get to experience all the horrors of the world without changing. Since the experiment affected people from all around the world, their existence cannot change the power dynamics in those conflicts. The Americans have their superheroes, the Nazis their ubermenschen, the British their Bureau agents. Their presence don’t change anything to the war, it just makes it more horrifying.
During Fogg’s interrogation, he recounts what Oblivion and him experienced during their time as British agents. From World War II to the Berlin Wall, the Postdam conference to the Vietnam War and the conflict in Afghanistan, the Changes lived through everything without ever changing physically. It perfectly highlighted this pointless and endless cycle of violence and cruelty.
Narrating this book from the perspectives of British agents was a clever choice in my opinion. Indeed, it managed to show how this country was involved in each major conflict of the last century. The geographic location of each war might be different but the key players remain the same. In the case of The Violent Century, the players really don’t change and it perflecty showcased how repetitive this cycle of violence was. Yet, I could understand why some Changed remained stuck in this cycle. While Fogg managed to run away for a few decades, Oblivion continues to work for the Bureau even if he’s completely disillusioned by his work.
All the Changed are looking for a sense of purpose and justification of all the horrors they committed in their never-ending lives. For Fogg, it’s his love for another Changed woman who can create beautiful illusions. At first, I thought their relationship was kind of weird and sudden but, now that I think about it more, his obsession for the innocence he sees into that woman was completely understandable. Even if this innocence is an illusion, even if she might not be as pure as he thinks, it gives him hope and that’s all that’s keeping him alive.
If I had to make one complain about this book, it would be that I could tell it was one of Tidhar’s earlier work (it was originally published in 2013 in the UK). As you may know, Unholy Land by Tidhar (2018) is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s clever, ambitious, beautifully written and masterfully crafted. It plays with the narrative structure and with time and space. I think it’s absolutely brilliant. The Violent Century plays with some of the same elements, but I don’t think it does it as successfully as Unholy Land and I couldn’t help but to compare the two works.
However, even if it wasn’t as groundbreaking as Unholy Land, The Violent Century is a worthy read. As you can expect with Lavie Tidhar’s works, it’s a challenging and unconventional read that deals with important and heavy topics. I talked about this book with my friends and family while I was reading it and it sparked some really interesting discussions. I would highly recommend this book to everyone. And also, go read Unholy Land.
Four and a half stars.