By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar
Lavie Tidhar has been on quite the roll, earning rave 5 out of 5 reviews from me his last three books. Unfortunately, his newest, By Force Alone (2020), didn’t rise to the same level. No, I’m sorry to say I could only see my way to giving it 4.5 stars thanks to being merely “excellent” as opposed to “great.” Slacker.
By Force Alone is an Arthurian tale, though that is a bit deceptive. Camelot this ain’t (though the musical makes an appearance or two). Think of Malory filtered through a mash-up of John Boorman’s Excalibur co-directed/written by Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino. And with a whole lotta cameos and Easter eggs. It’s dark, vulgar, gritty, funny, thoughtful, profane, biting, densely referential, bloody, and makes more than a few sharp social criticisms.
The general conceit is of knighthood being a gang/mob-style operation, complete with drug-dealing, protection-rackets, prostitution, hit jobs, family bosses, gang wars, and young people trying to become “made men.” The novel opens pre-Arthur, with Uther, sort of a major/minor warlord taking advantage of the vacuum left by the departed Romans. We’re introduced to Uther when he deposes Vortigern (himself an usurper) from his throne, which Vortigern tells us he “had schemed for … killed for … it is his by force alone.” Which is exactly how Uther takes it from him, killing Vortigern before “wip[ing] the blade clean and tak[ing] his place on the throne.” Uther moves on to brutally consolidate and gain territory, “what’s his by right and force alone,” eventually helped by Merlin, who in Tidhar’s version is a fae creature who feeds off of power and its use. Merlin is the one who shapeshifts Uther into the semblance of Gorlois, King of Cornwall, so he can rape Gorlois’ queen, Igraine. This, as Tidhar tells us several times in the next few pages, “is how the boy’s conceived”: “The one who would be king. This how they tell the story … this is how a nation is born.”
The events soon pick up in Londinium, with fifteen-year-old Arthur running a small street gang and protection racket with his half-brother Kay. If you were thinking the brutal, bloody tone would shift with the arrival of the “once and future king,” Tidhar quickly disabuses you of that, with Arthur describing his foster father (to Kay no less) as:
A fat old ogre with bad teeth who smell of rot. His pisser’s riddled with the clap … He takes a cut from everything he can: the whores, the brick trade, grain, protection, the cutthroat gangs, the rub-and-tug emporium. Lord of Londinium he styles himself, but he is nothing more than a jumped-up rent boy who used to blow fat merchants for his supper.
Arthur, though, has big plans in mind, and so we watch as he pulls off a major drug heist and then rises up from the streets to gang boss and eventually to Londinium’s boss, at which point he wages war against the other families, er, kings and knights. Soon all the other expected names are making appearances: Lancelot, Guinevere, Galahad, Gawain, Nimue, and others. They’re all here, if in somewhat unexpected form: Guinevere runs her own gang of lethal outlaws, Lancelot is a Nubian martial arts master trained by a Joseph of Arimathea who channels Erich von Daniken, Nimue is a fae gunrunner, Gawain arrives via a detour through Roadside Picnic. And so it goes. Tidhar rounds up all the usual suspects and sets them to putting into play all the usual elements of Arthuriana: building Camelot, having an affair, gaining Excalibur, seeking the Grail, though similar to the characters themselves, the events are more than a little warped from their usual form. Tidhar doesn’t simply twist the basic Arthurian plotline, though; he adds his own brand of wild inventiveness: the fae, Fairyland, a decapitated head prophesying Arthur’s death, leprechauns, aliens performing a perpetual interrogation by killing and reanimating the human they’ve caught, and more.
Along the way, Tidhar drops in numerous references/allusions/inside jokes, of which I’m sure I caught only some of. There are the aforementioned Camelot and Roadside Picnic references. But also The Godfather, Blade Runner (one of my favorites), Beowulf, Trainspotting, Monty Python, Close Encounters (I think), Oppenheimer, Macbeth, zombie films, and for good measure a heaping amount of T.S. Eliot. Amongst others I’m sure. And who doesn’t like the frisson of recognition with a good allusion?
It’s all gritty, bloody, wild fun. But Tidhar isn’t interested in simply subverting the Matter of Britain by dirtying it up — that would be too simplistic and mundane for an author of his caliber. The title, which runs as a constant refrain throughout, calls out one of the major themes — not just the will to power but the way to power, which is almost always sordid, ugly, and bloody. Or as Tidhar tells us: “There is no magic to being a king. There’s no birthright but the one that is bought with blood.” Which leads to another theme — the way we refuse to face that, the way we paper it over, gild it, lay gauzy streamers of glory over it:
So he murdered the other man? This Vortigern? For power?
“It’s not like that, don’t you ever listen?”
He explains about Igraine, Uther’s love for her …
He raped her? …
“No, it wasn’t like that, it wasn’t”
They just don’t understand. He wants to convey … the glory of it all! The, the fucking chivalry! … They make him question everything, as though it’s all so awful … just a simple tale of violence and greed.
And if we don’t want to look at the reality, or are in need of rationalization, then it helps to have a convenient distraction or scapegoat. An Other. In the historic time period of By Force Alone, those are the Angles and Saxons, against whom Merlin and Arthur whip up a fierce xenophobia (it doesn’t take long for nationalism to rear its ugly head in this newly unified country):
- “Angles and Saxons, coming over here to fight and pillage and, and rape!”
- “Foreigners come. Angles and Saxons … They want our land. They want our wealth. They want our women and our fields and our mines.”
- “The Anglo-Saxon tribes.. With their guttural Anglisc … taking up land, making native-born babies … They speak not the native tongues. They maintain their own strange customs.”
Impossible to read these exhortations and not hear their modern echoes, in Arthur’s England with Brexit or here in America. Or, as Tidhar explains in the afterward, in the way the Arthur story was repopularized in the Victorian era, tied directly to the imperialism/colonialism of the British Empire. Especially as Merlin later muses on how ridiculous the idea of ownership of land is, pointing out his lack of belief in his own BS, and how he’s merely exploiting the “regular” folks to propel his chosen one to power, all for his own hunger (literal for Merlin, metaphoric for others).
Tidhar highlights this brutal, soulless hypocrisy of those in power in the setup for the final battle between Mordred and Arthur, focusing far less time on the two main players than on the lowly grunts in a series of moving scenes as they prepare to march. The absurdity of xenophobia and nationalism is also made clear by a series of references to the future, as when Guinevere has a vision of how one day “all of this land will speak in Anglisc” or when Pellinore tells Merlin, “The Angles and Saxons are here to stay, dear Merlin. And so are we. In time they will forget they ever came here as invaders. They’ll tell this story and think it is about themselves.” An idea Tidhar carries into the afterword, when he points out the irony of how several of the greatest contributors to the Arthurian legends, the Matter of Britain, were not even English, such as Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach.
Wildly referential and inventive, crazily fun, topical, bleakly grim but with a hopeful rebuttal, By Force Alone continues the strong run that has made Tidhar one of my don’t-miss-a-book authors.
Arthur? An over-promoted gangster. Merlin? An eldritch parasite. Excalibur? A shady deal with a watery arms dealer. Britain? A clogged sewer that Rome abandoned just as soon as it could.
A savage and cutting epic fantasy, equally poetic and profane, By Force Alone is at once a timely political satire, a magical adventure, and a subversive masterwork.
“Anglo-Saxon anchor babies!”
I have GOT to read this.