Israeli science fiction and fantasy author Lavie Tidhar has a wide and varied bibliography. He has won and been shortlisted for numerous awards for his short stories and his longer works. Central Station was a series of linked short stories set around an interstellar port in Tel Aviv, The Violent Century was a take on the superhero genre, and in Unholy Land he took on alternate histories and multiple realities. So it is no surprise that By Force Alone does something completely different again.
This novel is Tidhar’s very modern version of the Arthurian tales. As he notes in his Afterword, there is really no definitive version of these stories and they have been adapted numerous times in the centuries since they were first told, often to serve a particular end. A fact that, he argues, gives him licence to do whatever he wants with the tales and their protagonists. And he does so with verve.
By Force Alone opens with Uther Pendragon cutting a swathe across what will become England in the wake of the departing Romans. Pendragon is a killer, but it is not until he gains the services of a shapeshifting Merlin that his fortunes start to change. Merlin and other fae creatures of his ilk who emerge later in the tale (including Morgana and Morgause) feed off power and its exercise. Through the story of Pendragon, Tidhar articulates the book’s thesis:
He sits upon the throne. It is his by right. He had schemed for it and he had killed for it and it is his by force alone.
There is no magic to being a king. There’s no birthright but the one that is bought in blood.
Along the way, Merlin helps Pendragon sleep with the wife of his enemy. When Pendragon dies prematurely, Merlin takes the child of that union, a boy who will later become Arthur, and hides him away in London.
The action then moves to London, fifteen years later. Arthur is a scrapper, a young man living by his wits on the streets and dealing drugs. ‘Wealth is power, and power is what Arthur craves.’ With the help of Merlin, who feeds off that power, Arthur starts to rise through the ranks, creating his own gang and establishing a new status quo. Soon he finds himself dealing with the six kings of England, and when they turn on him, he takes on all of them to become the sole ruler of the country.
But this is not just the story of Arthur. Tidhar spends time with other famous players from the tales of Camelot. Guinevere is herself a killer who leads a violent but effective gang of female fighters, Lancelot comes from the East with fabulous fighting skills on a quest to find the Grail and falls for Guinevere, and the knights of the Round Table, such as Galahad, each get their own story. But all are as corrupt, violent and venal as each other:
These men of the Round Table all have that in common: they are unholy sneaks and thieves and liars to a man, and will connive and scheme and murder to pursue their goals.
This is a profane and violent but enjoyable romp through the era. It’s full of anachronisms, and foreshadowings of the modern world such as this:
‘Now a new threat is coming from beyond the sea. Foreigners coming to take our land, our livelihoods – our wives!’… [Merlin] scans the crowd. They’re listening, he sees. They’re nodding in agreement… It occurs to him that this sort of patter will never quite fail. Perhaps in centuries hence, a millennium from now, this sort of crap would still light up people’s hearts. Hatred, after all, is so very comforting to have.
And it’s littered with wry observations:
They do not speak the common tongue but their own harsh Anglisc, a language truly of demons and half-men, a language so barbaric no one should ever try to speak it or, worse, write a story in it.
Adding to the enjoyment for readers are the myriad references (which again Tidhar acknowledges in his Afterword), some sly and some more obvious, to other versions of the Arthurian tale and to other pop culture touchstones. Everything from Blade Runner and The Godfather to this homage to Trainspotting in a speech from Arthur:
‘Choose life. Choose a home. Choose a great big fat palace to stuff all your money in. Choose a wench, any wench… Choose a sword, choose a horse, choose blood, because if you are not warriors you are nothing. Choose death. Choose life. Choose the fucking future.’
There is an almost Homeric aspect to this tale, as the main human players are often manipulated by otherworldly beings for their own ends. Merlin backs Arthur and frustrates the forces against him. Morgause seduces Arthur and then sets up his son Mordred in opposition to him. Morgana slinks through the world in the body of a cat and moves other characters like pieces around a chessboard. But all are in search of power, the ultimate aphrodisiac for supernatural beings and humans alike, despite its price, a common thread in many versions of this story. And similar to many of those retellings also, Tidhar does not ignore the fact that the Arthurian story is a tragedy, an aspect he builds to in a finale in which Arthur faces off against his son in battle.
All of the main aspects of the traditional Arthurian tales are covered here – the sword in the stone, the Lady in the Lake, the quest for the Grail, the Green Knight, Tristan and Isolde, Sir Pellinor and his endless hunt for the questing beast. Tidhar uses fantasy and science fiction tropes to create fascinating, twisted new versions of these iconic stories. But he also uses these tales, as they have often been used, not just for entertainment but for a political purpose, and to explore universal eternal human attributes. But where the more noble versions of these stories stress themes of honour, duty and sacrifice, Tidhar’s take is more focussed on corruption, venality and greed. It is this combination of setting, storytelling and theme that shows once again why Lavi Tidhar is one of the most interesting speculative fiction writers around.
This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.