If the catchphrase for Watchmen was "who watches the watchmen?", then The Violent Century's is "what makes a hero?"
Spanning the 1930s to the present, the story follows a handful of British superheroes—mainly the Old Man, Fogg, Oblivion, and others. They call themselves the changed or Übermenschen (German for “overman” or “superman”). The changed are recruited by their respective governments to serve in war. The British changed work for a secret agency as spies, agents assigned to unofficial missions, unknown and unappreciated by the general public (they officially do not exist), often called shadow men. It is a marked contrast to the typical American superhero who is bold, colorful, and right in the thick of the action and the media. Told in fragments from multiple accounts and reports spanning decades, an investigation is being conducted on Fogg (who manipulates fog), who wanted and needed more from life than being a shadow man.
Like Watchmen, this is an introspective and dark story, not necessarily an action-packed blockbuster with clearly defined good versus evil. Including history, alternative reality, sci-fi, a character study of these changed, even a love story, it does not tidily fit a category. The war and militaristic elements make the story more complex, when the characters have done difficult things for the sake of war. Tidhar has a distinct writing style of short sentences and phrases, giving the sense of being in the moment. The effect is a very visual story, similar in effect to a comic book scene cutting from one to the next.
The premise is intriguing, and the characters and ideas are fascinating. For all their special abilities, the changed are still very flawed and very human. Tidhar captures a compelling perspective of these changed, how they do not age yet can still be killed. Their minds and souls age, grow harder, more cynical, and more corrupt, but they struggle to keep up with the times with fewer changed remaining as time passes, and they always carry their past with them in a way their shorter-lived fellow men do not. For some geek fun, there are Easter eggs throughout, including a Stan Lee appearance and other superhero references.
Look for The Violent Century in the VBPL Catalog. For more alternative history twists, try LavieTidhar’s other works. For more superhero stories, there is Alan Moore’s classic Watchmen, Andrew P. Mayer’s steampunk Falling Machine, V.E. Schwab's dark fantasy Vicious, and Jackie Kessler's chick lit Black and White (see review).