Search

Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

Category

Superhero

THE VIOLENT CENTURY by Lavie Tidhar

THE VIOLENT CENTURY - Lavie Tidhar THE VIOLENT CENTURY

Lavie Tidhar (lavietidhar.wordpress.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£18.99

Released: 24 October 2013

In the summer of 1932, German scientist Dr Joachim Vomacht powers up a device that will change the world; the wave generated by this device will touch every person on the planet. Not everyone will come through the experience unchanged. Fogg and Oblivion are two such individuals, young British men who discover unusual talents in the wake of the Vomacht wave. Recruited by the Old Man, they join the ranks of the Bureau for Superannuated Affairs – the Retirement Bureau – and find themselves at the centre of some of the Twentieth Century’s most important events. Recalled to the Bureau today, Fogg – much older, but relatively un-aged – must give account of his actions in Berlin immediately following the Second World War, because those actions have repercussions for all of the "changed", even now, almost seventy years later.

Lavie Tidhar’s latest novel, The Violent Century, takes us to a world where superheroes are real. And yet, even with these Beyond-Men, Übermenschen, heroes, the history of the world remains relatively unchanged compared to our own. World War 2 proceeds as expected, the same atrocities carried out in the name of racial cleansing; as does the war in Vietnam and the much less-publicised war in Laos. It is, as the Old Man points out early in the novel, as if the Beyond-Men have cancelled each other out; if only one side or the other had them, things might have turned out much differently. In some ways this observation, and the manner in which these heroes seem completely ineffective, reduces them to the mundane, despite the power any one of them might have to affect the course of history.

The story centres around Fogg and Oblivion, two friends – and, it is hinted, perhaps more even than that – who work for the superhero equivalent of British Intelligence, a shadowy organisation that spends much of its time observing, rather than doing. Tidhar sets up a wonderful contrast between the British powers, and those of other countries: the brash, costumed heroes of the United States; the Communist ideals that drive Russia’s Red Sickle; and the Aryan perfection of the white-suited Nazi representatives. In a series of flashbacks – Fogg’s account as he sits in front of the Old Man’s desk in the Bureau for Superannuated Affairs, "tonight” – we catch glimpses of the century that has gone before: the moment of change in 1932; the recruitment process, and the initial training of Fogg and his fellow "changed" men and women; observing the war in Minsk, and in Paris, and elsewhere; and everything that comes after.

Jumping from time period to time period, recollections within recollections, Tidhar pieces together the history of these two men, and builds towards the final reveal, which will ultimately explain the relative coldness that exists between them in the here and now. In a world where superheroes are real, there is no need for the fictional kind and, as a result, some of the world’s greatest comics creators – Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – put in cameo appearances as historians, experts in the field. Interestingly enough, it is these characters who have the best lines, and who shine the most light on the questions that the novel repeatedly asks: What makes a man? What makes a hero? "”With great power comes great responsibility,” Lee tells us, echoing one of the best-known morals of any superhero tale, as he speaks at the trial in Jerusalem of Vomacht.

– But what’s a hero? the counsellor says, again.

– It seems to me, Shuster says, it seems to me…you must understand, I think, yes, you need to first understand what it means to be a Jew.

– I think I have some experience in that, the counsellor for the defence says drily – which draws a few laughs from the audience. On the stand, Shuster coughs. His eyes, myopic behind the glasses, assume a dreamy look. Those of us who came out of that war, he says. And before that. From pogroms to persecution and to the New World. To a different kind of persecution, perhaps. But also hope. Our dreams of heroes come from that, I think. Our American heroes are the wish-fulfilment of the immigrants, dazzled by the brashness and the colour of this new world, by its sheer size. We needed larger-than-life heroes, masked heroes to show us that they were the fantasy within each and every one of us.

It’s as close as the novel comes to answering the questions, and we, the reader, are left to decide for ourselves who are the heroes, who the villains. The central characters of this tale are supported by a cast of faces both familiar and new: here is Alan Turing, attached to the training camp for these super-humans rather than Bletchley Park; here, the attendees at the Potsdam conference; a descendant of Vlad the Impaler (or, perhaps, the beast himself); Josef Mengele; Osama bin Laden. The Violent Century is a well-researched and lovingly constructed piece of fiction that, despite its science fiction elements, still manages to remain well within the bounds of realism.

Lavie Tidhar is rapidly becoming one of the most important writers of speculative fiction today. The Violent Century is the work of a writer with talent and confidence to burn. Unlike anything else you’ve ever read, its combination of spy thriller and superhero adventure make for an unusual, but inspired, combination. It’s a wonderful, engaging and thought-provoking novel, written with a style as original as the story itself, and presented by Hodder in a beautiful package that will be hard to resist, even for the most casual collector. Quite simply: perfect!

TURBULENCE by Samit Basu

TURBULENCE - Samit Basu TURBULENCE

Samit Basu (samitbasu.com)

Titan Books (titanbooks.com)

£7.99

On a British Airways flight from London to Delhi, each of the passengers has a vivid dream. In this dream they see the person they want to be, the ideal them. When the plane lands, the passengers discover that the dreams were a precursor to reality – they have each been endowed with “powers”. As realisation dawns, factions form and individuals begin to disappear under suspicious circumstances, it becomes clear that the world as we know it is about to come to a very violent end. Aman Sen and the motley crew he has assembled must pool their resources in order to stop the ambitious and cruel Jai Mathur.

At first glance, Samit Basu’s fifth novel (the first to receive wide release outside his native India) seems to be your average superhero adventure. With elements of Marvel’s Fantastic Four and X-Men, it introduces us to a cast of characters who have received a mysterious gift from an unknown benefactor, and who have a difficult choice to make: to use the gifts they have been given for their own good, or for the good of mankind. But there’s a depth here, an examination of issues that sometimes get ignored or glossed over in the traditional superhero outlets (which is often down to the medium, rather than the writing).

The distribution of powers – based on the subject’s dreams – leads to a very obvious split: on the one side, Jai Mathur and his “team” have the strength, the speed, the ability to fly, and with those powers seems to come the desire to take control, to subjugate the Earth’s population. On the other, the B-list superheroes, as Aman Sen so blithely puts it: here we have Sen himself, who now has the ability to connect to any networked device – make a phone call, surf the Internet – without the need of a phone or a computer; Tia, who has the ability to create multiple copies of herself; Uzma, whom everyone loves immediately. The powers here come without the megalomania, and so we find Aman Sen trying to work out how to use his powers for the good of humanity. And then there are rogue elements who fit on neither side, and a handful of characters who remain undecided as to which side of the fence to land.

Despite the inequality between the two sides, in terms of strength at least, clashes are inevitable, and Basu ensures an action-packed read through a handful of violence-filled set pieces and enough surprises to keep the reader turning the pages long after that “one last chapter before bed”. But it’s not all punch-ups and fireballs. Basu spends time examining the political and social implications that come with the birth of a new race of metahumans: should there be new laws to govern them and the use of their powers? How should the question of patriotism be handled: should these new supermen and –women be ambassadors for India, or for the world (the fact that one of Sen’s teammates is a British Pakistani adds a whole new dimension to this question)? There is plenty of food for thought here: the Indian setting presents something of a culture shift for the average superhero fan, while Basu spends some time considering the consequences of these peoples’ actions – even the good deeds have unforeseen results and domino effects that leave these “heroes” questioning their right to interfere.

Don’t worry, though – there’s plenty of action to keep the story moving at a lightning fast pace, and a strong enough cast of characters to carry the story. In Aman Sen we have a wisecracking, self-confident nerd whose sole aim is to use his newfound powers for good. His polar opposite, the military’s Jai Mathur is everything that a master supervillain should be – conscienceless, ambitious and uncompromising. Between them, the four hundred other passengers of that fated flight, each with their own unique (and sometimes completely useless) power, and each with a decision to make, and a personality to justify the path they take. It’s a cast that Stan Lee would be proud of, though Turbulence is definitely more Watchmen than Avengers.

Credited as the creator of Indian English fantasy, Samit Basu arrives in the UK as an accomplished, some might say veteran, writer – Turbulence is his fifth novel, making him the best fantasy writer you’ve never heard of. That’s a state of affairs that you should rectify with all possible haste. Turbulence is a superhero novel like none you’ve seen before. A polished storyline, engaging characters and razor sharp wit combine to make this a must-read for everyone that has ever enjoyed a comic. It’s funny and action-packed, yes, but it’s also extremely intelligent and thought-provoking. It’s a perfect introduction to an excellent writer, and we can only hope that his back catalogue is made available in the UK in short order. It’s also an excellent start to a series that looks set to redefine the superhero genre for the twenty-first century. Kudos to Titan Books to bringing this excellent author, and this exciting series, to a much wider audience.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑