Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone

byforcealoneLavie Tidhar produces perhaps his best novel in By Force Alone. It is a re-interpretation of the Arthurian legend by a man who is not only very familiar with politics but also a massive geek. He produces a rush through of various events, major and minor, putting a new spin on the classic saga which includes swearing, drug dealing, a disturbing Merlin, and the most licentious sexual elements.

The result is an at times feverish, often crass, and quite unexpected book even to fans of his other works. While he is no stranger to the disturbing and disgusting, the use of frequent fart jokes and commentary on the fecal and sexual will surprise many more used to their austere or regal interpretations of these classic stories. Instead this is a dirty, grimy, and messy take, with everything from cluster f-bombs to repeated uses of the scatological. The book laughs at the idea of love, suggesting it is impossible for a warrior and ignoring it in most contexts.

An unusual aspect comes from expanded variations of certain often flat characters. Isolde is given a dark makeover, turned into not only rival for Guenevere but also a rather fierce warrior in her own right. Sir Kay is depicted as a voice of reason, thoughtful and loving when he had a mind for it. Indeed, he has one love interest through the majority of the book, slipping away to see him and risking himself to help him. Morgan La Fey is depicted as morally ambiguous and a rival to Merlin, yet actually significantly less Machiavellian in her schemes. The Green Knight, often little more than a plot device come antagonist, is here, a sympathetic and overall rather lovable nature spirit who is perhaps the character who performs the least evil. He also still, as in his first appearance, serves as a horrifyingly powerful creature who survives the impossible.

The ending attempts to play for sympathy, as it mirrors the classic death of Arthur, however the effect is strange given the author has worked to make so many characters unsympathetic. The moments with character whom had added detail are sad, yet the moments with those the reader is supposed to hate are often sympathetic as well. Merlin, intended to seem evil, instead comes across as pitiful in his failure to create stability, spend his time in his studies, or save the things he helped build. The only character given no major sympathy is Guenevere, and that is partly because she is no worse off at the end of the book than when she enters it.

At the end of this book comes a short afterward by the author in which he discusses the evolution of the Arthurian legends, and the origins of various elements. Oddly he does not discuss Arthurian farces and given the crass nature of many of the jokes throughout the book that is extremely unfortunate. The Arthurian and the low brow have connected in By Force Alone and mentioning it would help to legitimize his decisions from an Arthurian perspective, even if such choices worked.

 Tidhar also, at the end, admits to referencing various materials and offers a kind of kudos to those whom spot these things. Given lines from Shakespeare, Princess Bride, and more sprinkle the book, such a comment is more than appropriate. Truly finding these little pieces will please a fan of such material. Most of them are situationally appropriate, even if they stick out like a sore thumb, and as a result will not offend the reader as a pess educated use might.

The matter of Britian has been reinterpreted hundreds, if not thousands of times. There have been storiea like fairy tales, and versions like a gritty war drama. In By Force Alone Lavie Tidhar gives readers a taste of the Arthurian as an outrageous Fight Club style satire. It is a fresh take, and quite well done. If one is looking for such an unusual look at the material, this volume is easy to recommend.

(Tor, 2020)