The arrival of a new Lavie Tidhar book is always cause for celebration. He’s written some of my favorite books of the last 10 years. A Man Lies Dreaming is a masterpiece of speculative fiction. By Force Alone marks something of a departure for Tidhar. Whilst most of his novels fall into the speculative/science fiction category, this one leans towards Fantasy/Mythology. By Force Alone is a retelling of La Morte D’Artur
What is By Force Alone?
It’s a very modern retelling of Britain’s most famous legends, depicting Arthur and his Knights as you’ve never seen them before. There have been countless versions of the Arthur legends, and Tidhar draws on many of them to make something uniquely his own. Like many adaptations, By Force Alone is episodic. It always moves forward in time but jumps from story to story without filling many details in between. New characters and legendary knights usually arrive without fanfare or preamble.
Tidhar has avoided the heroic fully-armored depiction of the Knights, going for something more realistic; more dark ages. The Britain depicted here is stagnating. The Romans have left, various indigenous tribes are vying for supremacy, and more are arriving from overseas; Saxons, Angles, and Jutes to name but three.
The book opens with Uther Pendragon staking his claim as King of Britain, before moving rapidly on to the conception and birth of Arthur. The book then jumps to a teenage Arthur running a gang on the streets of Londinium. It has a definite Peaky Blinders feel to it. The language used in the novel is strong, Arthur and his knights are rough people. They live in dark times and have personalities and outlooks to match.
The story then follows Arthur as he scrabbles to the top of the heap. Along the way, it riffs on the legends of Excalibur, the Round Table, the Grail, and many more. All the major knights are here, Lancelot, Gawain, and Galahad. Guenivere too makes an appearance. All appear as you’ve never seen them before. The only character who you might recognize from other incarnations of the tale is Merlin, though there is little that is generic about Tidhar’s representation of the wizard.
The book finishes with an interesting afterword, that traces the history of the Arthur legends and explains the main references for By Force Alone.
Why Read By Force Alone?
When you read a Lavie Tidhar novel you’re in for something special; something different from standard storytelling. By Force Alone is no exception. Though it has a gruff, violent exterior, it’s a novel with many layers. There’s always so much going on in Tidhar’s novels, that on completion you immediately want to start again and try and catch bits that you missed.
Tidhar’s dry sense of humor is evident throughout the book, and, as readers of his other books might expect, there’s a lot of political referencing going on in the background of his story. It’s never overt, but the setting of the novel, with a King trying to unify “Britons” and lots of foreign invaders making their homes on the island, allows obvious inferences to be drawn. The novel is stuffed full of pop culture references, some of which I caught, others were more, “Oh that’s definitely from something, now what is it?” with the occasional “Ha ha! You clever, clever man,” thrown in for good measure.
Tidhar uses these references to give heft to his “past refracted through the lens of the present,” to poke and prod at the absurdities of 21st centuries and attitudes. Nobody actually says ‘Brexit’ anywhere during the novel, but you can hear it, unspoken, or more than one occasion.
By Force Alone reminded me of Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, whilst they’re different in tone they’re set in roughly the same time period. Lawhead’s books were my first literary foray into the world of Arthur were the first time I had ever heard of Uther. Perhaps that’s all they have in common, it’s a very long time since I read Lawhead’s original trilogy, but it was a warm association for me.
I was unsure of the episodic nature of the tale at first, though I appreciate that this is the way in which the stories were originally told. My last foray into reading Arthur tales was Peter Akroyd’s Death of Arthur retelling. I found its episodic structure and flat characters, extremely dull. No such problems here; once you realize the book presents snapshots of myth and fable, By Force Alone is extremely readable. The characters and stories are far from flat.
The mysticism and Grail story reinterpretation are fascinating, as is the journey and backstory of Lancelot (about which, I’ll say no more, but trust me, the book is worth reading for Lancelot alone). Merlin and other fey folk appear throughout the book, and their bickering, in-fighting, and the way their powers manifest themselves add a further dimension to an already interesting book.
Whilst it took me a little while to feel my way into By Force Alone, (street roving gangsters, were not what I anticipated) in the end I found it to be a glorious novel. It brings familiar names and faces back to the reader’s attention, and creates whole new tales and persona for them. It pays homage to its source materials whilst being something entirely new, taking age-old stories and bringing them right up to date. After reading By Force Alone you can’t help but think that whilst eras and faces change, humankind’s battle with itself is doomed to repeat over and over. All in all, this is an excellent read, and once again, I whole-heartedly recommend checking this or any of Lavie Tidhar’s other books.
If you’re wondering whether you might like this book, I have no idea if this will help, but here is Lavie’s Winnie the Pooh noir thread on his Twitter account.
Her name was Kanga and she was trouble. She came into my office as I was about to dip into a honeypot. I liked honey the way priests love God.
"You are Pooh? The detective?" she said.
"I live under the name of Sanders. What's it to you?"
"My boy," she said. "Roo. He's missing."
— Lavie Tidhar (@lavietidhar) March 6, 2018