Tidhar, Lavie. By Force Alone. Tor/Tom Doherty Books, 2020. $27.99.
This is a dark fantasy novel that retells the traditional Arthurian story, from Uther Pendragon’s taking the kingship of Britain to Arthur’s final battle at Camlann, with incidents and characters drawn from a wide range of medieval sources. Here you will find new treatments of the familiar figures at every turn, but unless your tastes run to the grim and gory, you may have some difficulty digesting this version. The story is set in a post-Roman Britain more fully conceived than that of most Dark Age historical and fantasy novels, and the action shifts, not always smoothly, between the natural and supernatural worlds. Both offer more than a little gratuitous ugliness in the form of mutilation, murder, cannibalism, general bad behavior and rather too much excrement.
The McGuffin in this story is the grail—here a skystone or UFO that fell to earth in Uther’s reign and which somehow became both the source of gold and radioactive mutations, but that’s just one of many original takes. The sword in the stone, the Lady in the Lake, the Questing Beast, the Green Knight, even Glastonbury Well are given new and typically perverted twists, because this is not a novel that loves the tradition. It is basically a series of incidents hung on the bare bones of the legend. Britain and Fairyland coexist uneasily here. Londinium, the setting for much of the early story, is a mess of Roman remains, crime-ridden slums and mob-ruled trades—a sordid, cheerless place. The castles of the other world are not much better.
Arthur, when we meet him (and who never develops much distinctive character) leads a teenage protection racket and a round table of petty thieves and drug dealers before taking charge of the city and dealing with rival kings. Merlin, the offspring of a human and some unidentified unhuman, is a major figure throughout, but one whose powers and motives are never well-defined or of great consequence. The same is true of other supernatural creatures—Nimue, Morgause, Morgan, Cath Palug—who interfere with the mere mortals apparently by whim.
Guinevere is here a leader of a girl gang, Sir Kay the obligatory gay, Owain and Agravain are thugs, and so on. Lancelot has perhaps the most developed character through an elaborate back story which has him serving his master, Joseph of Arimathea, but there is little that distinguishes even Lancelot as a distinct personality. The dialogue of all of them, as well as the voice of the narrator, is in the naughtiness mode of teenage boys. The obscenities are so plentiful that any shock value has been wrung out of them by chapter two, so thereafter there’s little effect at all.
Tidhar is a cut above the writers of most modern fantasy in his descriptive abilities and understanding of the historical background of his tale, and he is a writer of solid prose. He incorporates, often unobtrusively, allusions not only to obscure medieval material, but also to Greek and Roman philosophers, Biblical writing and early Christian apocrypha, and even, if you’re attentive, to T.S. Eliot and Kurt Vonnegut. The book has its admirers—the back of the jacket is covered in favorable quotes—and when the writing is good, I tend to become a slow reader. I’m also always interested in new treatments of the legend, but with By Force Alone, I found myself rushing to its end.
Kansas City, MO