The Shites of the Round Table…?
A retelling of Arthurian myth for the age of Brexit and Trump…
Everyone thinks they know the story of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table.
The fact is they don’t know sh*t.
Arthur? An over-promoted gangster.
Merlin? An eldritch parasite.
Excalibur? A shady deal with a watery arms dealer.
Britain? A clogged sewer that Rome abandoned just as soon as it could.
A savage and cutting epic fantasy, equally poetic and profane, By Force Alone is at once a timely political satire, a magical adventure, and a subversive masterwork.
Lavie Tidhar is one of the most interesting storytellers writing today. Never shy of tackling sensitive topics and subjects (Hitler and Osama bin Laden to name but two recent-ish subjects), in By Force Alone he turns his attention to the Arthurian myth — in many ways, the closest the United Kingdom has to a founding mythology. This is not the Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, and Lancelot you may know from other popular interpretations: This is an entirely new beast. It is a grim, grubby version of Camelot and post-Roman Britain. It is also very funny, engaging, and gritty. I really enjoyed this.
You might be wondering about the stand-first I included at the top, there. Well, it’s because nobody in this novel is a particularly good person. They are all self-involved, willing to climb over any- and everyone else in order to get what they want. Arthur starts as the leader of a gang of youths in Londinium, dealing drugs and hijacking large shipments of same. Merlin is an otherworldly creature who feeds off others’ power and energy (especially Arthur’s) — he’s also cynical and doesn’t really seem to like anyone else. Lancelot, meanwhile is a Middle Eastern-trained mystic/ninja/warrior-type and an assassin-for-hire. Guinevere is a killer, who quickly tires of life as Arthur’s wife (that’s not really a spoiler). Countless other characters are ready to fight and fuck their way to the top, regardless of who they have to step on or kill along the way. This is not a band of merry men, but a bunch of bastards.
Almost everything is reimagined, and filtered through a black mirror of sorts. The Grail, for example, is an intriguing development.
“A sword in a stone,” he says. “That is the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever heard, Merlin.” Then he grins, and pats Merlin’s hand. “Nice one,” he says.
The novel is by turns funny, a little bit horrifying, uncomfortable, and bizarre. But it is always interesting and imaginative. It’s nearly impossible to read the novel without thinking about contemporary politics and how the UK (and US) has changed. The characters are dealing with their own difficult political and social environment: the Romans have departed, leaving the island ungoverned and adrift. They feel abandoned, but also fiercely nationalistic (even though it isn’t actually a single nation). Arthur is determined to unite the various kingdoms, and rule over the whole island. It won’t be easy, but he’s up for the challenge, and has the temperament to achieve it.
Merlin shrugs. “You don’t become a king by being honest,” he said. “You come to the throne by force alone.”
It’s definitely worth reading the author’s note at the end, too, which traces the history of the Arthurian myth. Given how central the character and legend(s) have become to the notion of Britain’s founding, the author points out that “it is one of the greatest ironies of the material that the stories of Britain were mostly made up by those on the continent.”
“Fuuucking Anglo-Saxons,” Merlin says, with feeling.
If you’re looking for something a little bit different, then I would highly recommend you give By Force Alone a try. It’s quite a hefty tome, and it doesn’t always move quickly, but it’s definitely worth your time. Grim, amusing, insouciant, and clever, it’s a lot of fun. Definitely recommended.
“Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!”