By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar (book review).

In recent years there were a couple of films that purported to tell the more historically accurate stories behind such legendary figures as King Arthur and Robin Hood. For those who like a Robin Hood or King Arthur story, they were a bit of a disappointment. In ‘By Force Alone’, Lavie Tidhar retells the legend of King Arthur in a completely different way.

It’s not a traditional heroic Arthurian legend, but you also won’t be left disappointed by a dry, realistic history. In true Lavie Tidhar style, we get something much more entertaining, bizarre and fantastical. His recent novels ‘Central Station’ and ‘Unholy Land’ have both had a lyrical, magical feel to them but, to my mind, ‘By Force Alone’ harks back to the anarchic creativity of ‘The Tel Aviv Dossier’.

In this version of history, kings and knights are nothing more than gangsters from warring factions. There is no chivalry, there is only protection rackets, drugs, betrayal and slaughter. There is also magic: the Lady of the Lake, Excalibur, Merlin and all of the well-known ingredients of Arthurian legend make their appearance, but never in a way that you would expect. Lavie Tidhar has subverted history and legend alike to brew up something potent, gritty, vulgar and brutal.

At some point in the middle, I had a flashback to ‘Shrek’: ‘Attention all fairytale creatures…’ Lavie Tidhar has managed to include just about every mythical creature from numerous mythic traditions. Unicorns and mermaids are there, trolls and leprechauns, every variety of local legendary creature, plus leftovers from Greece and Rome and elsewhere.

In this version of Britain, everything that anyone ever believed in has a place in reality, every superstition is based on fact and everyone’s lives are far more complicated as a result. How much of this is down to the radioactive blight caused by a crashed alien spaceship is open to debate.

For the most part, the book follows Arthur as he makes his way from bastard son of the late King Uther Pendragon via small-time gangster to ruthless warrior, completely bypassing any hint of heroism or chivalry. The length and breadth of the country, Arthur and his various associates and enemies travel and explore, fight and betray one another and subjugate anybody else they happen to come across. The founding of Camelot, the stories of how various well-known knights come to the Round Table, the origin of Excalibur: all of these play a part in this sweeping tale that spans several decades of history.

The mention of a crashed alien spaceship led me to believe this would be more of a Science Fiction novel, maybe something along the lines of ‘Cowboys And Aliens’, that there would be some kind of science fictional explanation behind the legend. That is only a minor aspect of the book though. For the most part, it’s more of a fantasy tale, which is unfortunate for me as I only read Science Fiction and I’m not really interested in fantasy at all. Many people are fond of both though and will perhaps appreciate the fantasticalness of the book more than I.

It certainly came across as highly original to me, but I don’t have much of a fantasy background to compare it to. If you come to the book expecting something classically Arthurian or pleasantly Tolkienesque, then you’ll be in for a shock. If you’re looking for something riotously, uncompromisingly graphic and frenzied, then this book well certainly stand out from the crowd.

Gareth D Jones

April 2020

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(pub: Head Of Zeus. 505 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £14.99. ISBN: 978-1-83893-130-8)

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