In his latest book, The Escapement, Lavie Tidhar shows his capacity to keep readers guessing. He has done alternate history and the multiverse (Unholy Land), science fiction (Central Station) and most recently a wild retelling of the Arthurian myth (By Force Alone). The Escapement is both easy and difficult to describe – it is a new-weird Western, set in a shadow world of our own, but it is also a story of love and loss and dealing with grief.
The Escapement has a double opening. The first is a man sitting by a hospital bed where his son lies in a coma. The appearance of a small red flower segues into the second opening to what is the main narrative, the story of the Stranger who is on a mission across a world known as the Escapement to find a rare flower, the Plant of the Heartbeat, one with the capacity to heal. But before he can do that, the Stranger comes across a massacre and together with a bounty hunter tracks down the perpetrators. The massacre is of eleven clowns (including Whitefaces, Augustes and Hobos). Clowns are a native species in the world of the Escapement, and these have been killed for their scalps.
The world of The Escapement is one in which clowns are hunted, the major figures of the Tarot roam the land, and the people are trapped in an ongoing war between giant mythical creatures that leaves ordinary people forever changed. The reality of the Escapement also overlaps our own and some people are able to move between the two realities. The narrative sends the Stranger on a series of quests, missions and adventures as he makes his way across the landscape towards his ultimate goal. As he does so, Tidhar plays with a range of Western tropes – including a train robbery, saloons, grizzled war veterans and journeys of vengeance. But the narrative also drops in and out of the story of a father trying to deal with his son’s worsening condition in the “real world” (although the question is often asked – “Do they dream us or do we dream them?”).
In his Afterword, Tidhar expresses his debt to the influences behind The Escapement. This includes a Hebrew fairy tale from the 1930s, Mesopotamian and Greek mythology, the Tarot, the poem Ozymandius and Sergio Leone’s 1966 Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But for all that, the book itself reads like a cross between China Miéville’s new weird aesthetic and Stephen King’s fantasy Gunslinger styling, even though neither of these influences are credited. Just as an example, this is part of the description of what happens when a “chthonic bomb” explodes in the middle of a city:
A man pushing a food cart looked briefly puzzled and then turned into a pink flamingo. He spread his wings experimentally and took to the air.
The towers of the city began to melt. A horse-drawn cart swerved sharply to avoid a swirl of tomatoes which had drawn together into a humanoid shape and ran down the street, leaving juicy footprints in its wake. The horse reared back and its legs turned to glass in the air and it remained there, suspended, only the eyes still alive and blinking.
Each chapter of The Escapement is its own, self-contained story in a broader overall narrative, each drawing from a different part of the Western tradition but in a sideways, off-kilter way. But The Escapement is more than this, particularly in its links to the “real world” and the potential that it is all just an escape for a man dealing with a personal tragedy. Taken together, The Escapement is another eye-opening, brain busting, heart rending and page-turning novel from Tidhar.