Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone is a loving send up of both Arthurian Legends and genre fiction and movies in general. Its structure is unique, and interesting. Most books that do multiple POV’s usually alternate short chapters, to end on cliff hangers and artificially keep the reader reading. Tidhar instead uses a series of sections that are around novelette or novella length, each one focusing on a different, engaging character. And each section has its own genre that Tidhar plays around with, not just confining himself to Arthruana or fantasy in general.
In a way, it reminds me of the way John Gardner’s Grendel moves through the history of philosophy. The plot, the arc, what keeps us reading is the subtext, what moves beyond the text, and not the plot itself. We all know the story of Arthur, his knights, the holy grail, all of that. What moves this story (and keeps us engaged) is how this plays with each genre and subgenre, and how they all interact with each other and gets everything moving.
For example, we have sections that remind me of Goodfellas and other syndicate crime dramas. Another section we have a wuxia inspired Lancelot, who knows Jewish Kung Fu. And another that is a cross between Heart of Darkness and Roadside Picnic, which dabbles in the post-apocalyptic scifi genre with interesting results. Here, the Holy Grail is a radioactive chunk of space rock, and I know, you’re thinking…wait. This is all so…strange and madcap, and maybe even a bit goofy?
If you know anything about Tidhar’s writing, you know he takes serious concepts and pulls the rug out from under them, showing us the humorous absurdity underneath it all. And By Force Alone is no different. This book is hilarious as it is haunting, depressing and thought provoking. It seems to be marketed in the US as just another grim dark gritty epic fantasy by the likes of Abercrombie and GRRM, and I think that limits the audience for such a wonderful and strange book. I know, marketing and books being what they are, they want to tack and attract a large audience of the book buying population. But this book is so much more than a mere label.
It’s one of those books that feels like it should be a classic. It doesn’t confine to one thing or another, but instead plays with all aspects of genre like they’re playdough or clary. In this aspect, Tidhar is a master craftsman. He uses the tools, the concepts, the tropes of taxonomy itself in a way that redefines each of them, and shows us the absurdity at the core of it all, but in a way that’s both amusing and thought provoking.
It’s thrilling to read a book like this. I walk away from it energized and excited about reading fantasy/science fiction/horror fiction, as well as writing it again. The tired old ideas are made fresh and dangerous again. It’s the kind of book that is a lightning rod to the right kind of people. I have a feeling that the readers who read and love this book will set out inspired to create their own novels in its likeness. It’s the kind of work that will be mentioned in interviews, the kind that is passed back and forth in hushed libraries. Like ripples in a pond it expands, and eventually we will see the fingerprints everywhere.
It’s just a matter of time.