Sunday, January 3, 2021

By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar

As a kid I read the first three books of Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle (all that were published at the time), his take on the Arthurian legends. I also read an account by Sir James Knowles that a family friend gave me. I’ve encountered versions of it since then (most notably the Fisher King stuff in Last Call by Tim Powers, among my favorite novels). But Arthurian legend isn’t a genre I automatically seek out. But back in 2016 I discovered Lavie Tidhar and had read eight of his books. He is a master of taking disparate genres and making them work together when it really seems it shouldn’t. The elevator pitch for this was that it was Arthur by way of Pulp Fiction or Goodfellas, so given my previous experience with Tidhar’s work, I was sold immediately. And, having read so much Tidhar, I should have known that wouldn’t be all.

That is an accurate take on the beginning and then the ending of the book. After a brief (and brutal) account of Uther, Arthur’s father’s rise and fall (which set the tone for Tidhar’s take on political power as gangsterism), the book picks up with Arthur and Kay as fifteen/sixteen year old gangsters running a protection racket in post-Roman Londinium . This was catnip for me. I love genre mashups and I love both crime and fantasy fiction. It directly references Tarantino and Scorcese and probably more I missed. But Tidhar doesn’t hold that vibe, which could eventually grow old and make for a too on the nose political point, past it’s breaking point. He gives you just enough, before turning to a more fairy/fae/elfland style fantasy, albeit one whose politics mirror the Londinium ones. And before that could grow old, it morphs into a wuxia/kung-fu movie by way of Jewish diaspora. Then it flash forwards to a Roadside Picnic style scifi. (If you’re unfamiliar, that was a big influence on Annihilation, both the Jeff Vandemeer novel and the movie. It was the basis for the Tarkovsky movie Stalker. For the record, I haven’t read the book, but was spoiled on its story.)  Then all the genres and plot strands come together in a big battle that is more Gangs of New York than Minas Tirith. And as divergent as these genres are, Tidhar makes them into a unified whole while creating an absolutely convincing world and point of view.

I do not like didacticism in fiction as a rule. If a novel gets too didactic it puts me off unless there are a lot of other things I love about it to counterbalance it. Wendell Berry does a great job of making me overlook his didacticism. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like books with a strong political point. If the point doesn’t arise naturally from the work, or if it overwhelms the art of the story, I generally get so annoyed that I dock the book, even if I agree with the point. If I want to read an essay or a tract, I’ll read an essay or a tract. I don’t like being preached at. By Force Alone is a clinic in how to do it right, even if he toes that line a couple times. The book’s title becomes a bit of a refrain early on, talking about how power is gained by force. But he stopped that before it became onerous. And by illustrating how much the native characters saw the Angles and Saxons as outsiders invading their country he illustrates how ridiculous white/Anglo-Saxon supremacy is, and makes a strong point about the movement driving Brexit without being preachy. It’s impossible to miss the point, but the book is first and foremost a compelling adventure novel, and the point is made all the more strongly for it. Try explaining to an alien completely unfamiliar with centuries of mythologizing why Arthur is a hero and not a thug. Chivalry would seem like a bad joke to these characters. The book is unrelenting in its portrayal of the brutality that people are capable in their quest for power. It understands that quest is usually built by demonizing another group. 

But for all that, it’s primarily a well written, hyperviolent, funny and compelling adventure novel. I read it in a single day. Tidhar is a master, and this is one of his best books.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 1/

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