By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar

March 6, 2020

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, turd-gilding, weasel-worded lies told to justify foul deeds and ill-gotten gains.

I’ve always been a fan of legends and mythology, British folklore being of particular interest, so when I heard Lavie Tidhar was writing a book based on the Arthurian cycle I have to admit I got a bit excited. It turns out my excitement was more than a little justified. By Force Alone has been released this week and it is everything I hoped it would be and more.

The novel follows Arthur through his entire life. From Uther Pendragon’s tryst with Igraine to Arthur’s final meeting with Mordred. You may well be familiar with the stories that surround Camelot but By Force Alone interprets things just a little differently. Try to imagine some Guy Ritchie type gangster action playing out in the Dark Ages. Arthur is as much a crime boss as a king. Thinking about it, that maybe the whole point. As his life plays out, the author draws parallels between Arthur the young tearaway living fast and free on the streets of Londinium, and Arthur the monarch defining a country one sword stroke at a time. The only difference between running a gang of thugs and running a kingdom is the sense of scale.

Arthur can be viewed almost like an addict, but his addiction of choice isn’t drugs, its power. He craves total control and is prepared to do anything in order to achieve it. Aloof and single-minded Arthur could not necessarily be described as a likeable soul. He is so consumed with his birth right he is oblivious to any other concerns. In many respects he becomes a secondary character in his own life. The world may revolve around the man destined to be king, but it is the actions and reactions of his friends and enemies that drive the narrative forward. Arthur is always there in the background, his presence is felt throughout, but the focus is on those who drift in and out of his orbit.

It’s the thing I enjoyed most about By Force Alone, the characters. These are not the noble, steadfast, honour bound individuals you have met before. Tidhar has a deliciously skewed take on the Knights of the Round Table.

Merlin is a slippery stoner type, imbued with a low animal cunning and a desire for knowledge above all things. Most of the time he views humanity with a morbid curiosity. Smarter than just about everyone in the room, the only thing he must contend with are the other members of his own dysfunctional otherworldly family.

Lancelot is more mercenary than chivalrous knight. Killing is his business and business is good. Lancelot’s back story is a highlight. It basically involves a plethora of violence, all- encompassing obsession, and at one point some graphic bloodletting involving intestines. All this is before he has even made it to Camelot and Arthur’s side.

Guinevere is a badass, she runs her own gang who are more than happy to kill, or maim, as long as it guarantees a decent payday. The dynamic between her, Arthur and Lancelot is explored in a particularly interesting way. I’ll say no more than that for fear of spoilers.

This is not the version of Camelot you will be familiar with. Gone are the shining spires to be replaced by grimy whorehouses. Since the Romans exit from the country we’ve fallen on hard times. In many respects Arthur’s golden vision of a united nation is commendable but the reality is, putting it politely, a bit more earthy.

There is an episodic air to each new chapter. As more characters are introduced, Gawain, The Lady of the Lake, the Green Knight etc the plot hits the key points of Arthur’s legends. As the plot reaches its climax, Tidhar proves he also has a keen eye for gripping action. The Battle of Camlann has a slow build, but when it all finally kicks off, there is a gleeful chaos to proceedings. Arthur’s ultimate meeting with Modred is as brutal as it is definitive.

In the last decade of reviewing books, if you had forced me to pick a single book out of the  hundreds I have read as a favourite up until By Force Alone, it would have been A Man Lies Dreaming also by Lavie Tidhar. Now I find I am burdened by indecision. A Man Lies Dreaming will always be close to the top of the list, but is it still number one? I’m not sure. I shouldn’t be in the least bit surprised that the same author could easily reinvent Arthurian legends so eloquently. The writing injects this little country’s collected mythology with a whip smart modern sensibility. By Force Alone is the rowdy bastard child of John Boorman’s Excalibur and Trainspotting*. It’s only March but I can already confidently predict that By Force Alone is going to be one of my favourite reads of 2020. If I could think of a rating higher than “highly recommended” then I would the using that to describe this book.

The soundtrack recommendation is King Arthur: Legend of the Sword by Daniel Pemberton. The music dovetails seamlessly with Tidhar’s words. The track Growing Up Londinium is a perfect example. Listening to that while reading about Arthur’s early life felt like a match made in heaven.

By Force Alone is published by Head of Zeus and is available now. I stress once again that its brilliant and you should immediately seek it out.

*There is one specific passage that is undoubtedly a nod to everyone’s favourite skag-addled Scottish miscreants, Keep an eye out, you’ll know it when you see it.

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