Let me start by admitting this is the most difficult review I’ve had to write. It’s taken me a few weeks to analyse my thoughts and bring them into coherent order. Why? The answer’s simple: after finishing the final pages, I believed The Violent Century was one of the best books I’ve ever read. That’s high praise indeed, and I wanted to make sure my opinion hadn’t changed, that it wasn’t just a knee-jerk reaction to a book that felt so unique at the time.

The concept of superheroes helping fight the Second World War isn’t a new one (we’ve all heard of Captain America, for example) but Lavie Tidhar’s protagonists are spies, men and women with a mission to observe and record, never to interfere. This mission takes them through to the years of the Cold War, giving the book a John le Carre style of intrigue; everyone has their secrets (and, in some cases, their price) which they are willing to hold onto, even if it will destroy them. Tidhar’s main protagonist is Henry Fogg, a man whose superpower is to…well, create and manipulate fog, mist and smoke. Already, the surname suggests that it’s a code, that the omniscient observer who narrates the book is already hiding something from the reader.

The writing gives a strong sense that we’re being told what happened, rather than reading about it; the tone ranges from whimsical to cynical (sometimes in the blink of an eye), as if the reader is listening to a story told by someone in conversation. Tidhar’s style of writing in short, often sharp, sentences may take a bit of getting used to, but once they click into place, there’s something lyrical about them. None, I feel, more so than a description of Fogg in Paris (chapter 71, for anyone who’s read the book) which evokes the mood so perfectly, stimulating all senses to give a real feeling of being there. Perhaps the style isn’t for everyone – there are no speech-marks, for example, so it can be difficult to know when someone has stopped talking – but if given a chance, it’s ultimately rewarding, and makes the reader become deeply involved in the writing, rather than scanning one word after the other.

As for the story, what could have been a sprawling epic is kept tight by its focus on the characters involved within the world-changing events of the last hundred years. We start in present day and are taken on a journey into the past, on a path that twists and turns through the years. Fogg is re-united with his friend and former partner for a final de-brief, their former commander wanting to know the secret that tore the two of them apart. Along the way, the reader is introduced to characters both real and imaginary; the former are woven seamlessly into the narrative, rubbing shoulders and crossing paths with our heroes in scenes that can be heart-warming or horrifying.

For me, this is the triumph of the book. Despite its premise, there’s something startlingly real about it all; in fact, it’s often the true stories about real-life people and situations that are the most bizarre and disturbing. Tidhar blends imagination and reality with startling results – one example being American super-heroes storming the beaches at Normandy – while adding in philosophy and politics. Despite the latter, the author never preaches; this is a book about humanity, about what actions (or inactions) can decide a man’s fate, and the nature of heroism. At its heart, there’s a love story, but it may not be what you’d expect, and the book keeps the reader in suspense until the very end. The finale left me in tears, making me want to start the book again as soon as I’d finished it.

In all likelihood, there’s no such thing as the perfect book; because we all like different things, it’s all a question of taste. For me, though, The Violent Century has everything to look for in a novel – a wonderfully crafted plot, strong realistic characters, an atmosphere that is unnervingly real – all written in a style that insists on the reader’s full attention. Rarely have I read a book that has me thinking about it between sittings, or is able to drown out the noise as I read in a public place.

That’s enough gushing. As you can no doubt tell, I’d recommend this book to anyone. The weeks have passed, the review is (finally!) written, and I can still say it: The Violent Century is one of the best books I’ve ever read.


By Alister Davison

Alister rediscovered fantasy a few years ago when he was handed an old David Gemmell novel and remembered everything he loved about the genre. He's been stringing words together since he can remember, and - inspired by the likes of Scott Lynch and Joe Abecrombie - he set out to write a fantasy of his own. That story has expanded to a trilogy, part one of which is now setting out on the noble quest for representation. If not writing, reading or reviewing, Alister is probably watching TV while wondering what to read next.

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