Hodder & Stoughton, h/b, 352pp, Â£18.99
Reviewed by Glen Mehn
In the aftermath to the Great War, and during the run-up to the Second World War, something happened. Supermen were created. Ãœbermenschen, they’re called, rather than superheroes because they were created by an apparent accident of a shadowy German scientist, Vomacht. The action occurs between the second World War, the Cold War, Afghanistan, the Vietnam War (known in Viet Nam as the American War), and the present day, these non-ageing super men witnessing the events, the fall of the British Empire and the rise of the American Empire.
Tidhar brings us a tale of individuals wrestling with questions of their nature, told on a grand scale, on the stage of the historical shifts that exist in living memory, and he does an outstanding job of it, weaving together historical fact with stunningly deceptive world building into a cloth that reflects in a very real way how these people, how these lives are different for the presence of these Ãœbermenschen, and, in fact, what little difference it makes in the grand scheme of things.
This is told from the perspective of Britain. The American Ãœbermenschen, naturally, dress in brighly-coloured costumes, taking centre stage in D-day, in front of the cameras, showing off. Britain’s Ãœbermenschen operate from the shadows, their existence unacknowledged, the departmentÂ they work for officially known as the Retirement Bureau.
Tidhar shows a deft hand with research, digging up records of war crimes tribunals, of World War II battles, of the CIA front company Air America, funding the war by selling Laotian opium, bringing together British, Soviet, and American Ãœbermenschen, showing how different, and how similar, the arcs of their lives can be over this violent century.
The book is framed in an epic search for truth, the eponymous Old Man of the Bureau trying to clear up his records of an event, somewhere, in the War, and it weaves together heroes, lovers, friends, and enemies, asking complex questions without hesitations about what it means to be any of those, what it means to be human, what it means to be a hero, to live with the consequences of life in this violent century.
This is a dark, brooding book, one that you want to gnaw on, savour, slowly, and enjoy, but it has its light moments, too: the recruitment scenes with the Old Man could have featured a wheelchair and a bald man. Radioactive spiders are mentioned and discarded. Lines about great power and great responsibility appear in unlikely places, as though to demonstrate intimate knowledge of the tropes as well as history, before the text rises above them.
Tidhar’s previous work has been playful, solid, irreverent, but this book comes in a much more accessible format. He’s dealing with the grandest schemes on the largest of backdrops in time and place, and this level of awe-inspiring craft places him firmly within the highest tier of writers working today, no longer an emerging writer, but a master.