Fiction Reviews

By Force Alone

(2020) Lavie Tidhar, Head of Zeus, £14.99, trdpbk, 506pp, ISBN 978-1-838-93127-8


There is a legend...Britannia, AD 535. The Romans have gone. While their libraries smoulder, roads decay and cities crumble, men with swords pick over civilisation's carcass, slaughtering and being slaughtered in turn. This is the story of just such a man. Like the others, he had a sword. He slew until slain. Unlike the others, we remember him. We remember King Arthur. This is the story of a land neither green nor pleasant. An eldritch isle of deep forest and dark fell haunted by swaithes, boggarts and tod-lowries, Robin-Goodfellows and Jenny Greenteeths, and predators of rarer appetite yet. This is the story of a legend forged from a pack of self-serving, weasel-worded lies told to justify foul deeds and ill-gotten gains. This is the story – viscerally entertaining, ominously subversive and poetically profane – of a Dark Age myth that shaped a nation.

Oh, dear, I thought, hefting another weighty tome in my hand. 505 pages long, including the afterword, but fortunately divided into fourteen parts, starting with “Part One: The Rise and Fall of Uther Pendragon” and ending some 71 chapters later with “Part Fourteen: The Death of Arthur” – well, what did you think was going to happen? Due to the division into parts and chapters I had no problems consuming this book thanks to Tidhar’s vivid, irreverent, retelling of a tale that everyone thinks they know by jolting it into life with a combination of wit, and violence and modern dialogue, which some critics have already been labelling the Peaky Blinders of the Round Table, geddit?

Tidhar clearly knows his Arthur and there are nods to several book and movie versions that have gone before, ranging from Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave to other novels as well as film versions especially John Boorman’s very cinematic Excalibur. Even Monty Python and the Holy Grail get a look in, but there are many other popular culture references, including Bladerunner and Trainspotting, and many others, some of which might need a second read to discover. We also get some science fiction, martial arts and future prophesy thrown into the mix.

The story takes place in a post-Roman Britain, with all of the infrastructure that the Romans established – okay, what did the Romans ever do for us – well a lot, actually but now it is all decaying, and into this vacuum has seen the rise of local “bosses”, establishing their own mini-kingdoms which they rules through violence, with hints to a mafia-like structure and a hankering to do things like they were back in the Old Country. Arthur wants to unite the little kingdoms with himself in charge of the larger, sole united England because he wants power, and even Merlin recognises how this populist thirst for power and the way Arthur engages with the masses to perpetuate his own legend will be repeated down through the ages.

Given his previous writing (A Man Lies dreaming, The Violent Century, etc.) Tidhar is just the person to dismantle the myth of Arthur and update it using a whole slew of popular references and influences, given that Arthur – if he did exist – has been reinvented several times, and placed in different historical times starting off in the Dark Ages and cropping up later in history. Riffing off popular culture. Tidhar also rewrites many of the iconic events of the Arthurian legend and is clearly having great fun with them. Some are glossed over, some are brilliantly rewritten, some characters are given a totally different background story – Guinevere becomes the leader of a gang of highwaywomen; Lancelot is a Nubian master of the ancient art of gongfu, with moves that include The Turn of the Screw, The King in Yellow and The Monkey’s Paw! Need I say more. Quite simply, By Force Alone is brilliant, thought-provoking entertainment, which reinvents events from a fictional past that resonate with a real-life, post-Brexit, Britain.

Ian Hunter


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