In By Force Alone, Lavie Tidhar takes an ax to the Arthurian Legend and hacks it into pieces. Pieces that he then weaves into a bloody mess of gory awesome.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher, I had the chance to read the book prior to its release on the 11th of August 2020. And let me tell you, it is not for the faint of heart. By Force Alone demands a lot from the reader, but what I think you need to do, above all, to go through this book is to keep an open mind.
Finishing the Book By Force Alone
See what I did there? The book starts off slowly, I think, all the way back to Uther’s rise to power. And it drags us through the years right up to Arthur’s death. At some point, it turns into a wild ride. That, combined with Tidhar’s rhythmic writing, left me frustrated but wanting to know more.
The book is like that final clash he describes:
“Hack hack slash stab feign thrust parry stab stab knife.”
At points, it wasn’t brute force, but the force of will that kept me glued to the pages. We’ve all grown up listening to, reading, or watching different spins on the Arthurian Legend, and I wasn’t about to drop this one. I’m not squeamish, but that pace was a real threat.
If you remember Guy Ritchie’s Legend of The Sword, and specifically that scene, Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone felt something like a montage but without the visual appeal of the movie. But I bit down on the pace and finished the book. And I regret nothing!
By Force Alone: The Plot & Characters
If you’re hoping to find noble knights, fair ladies, wise wizards and enchantresses, pass on it. The book is an endless cycle of violence and hustling, broken only when all the power-hungry are gone. When those who crave power for power’s sake are dead and dust. Or mermaids’ food.
Uther is a bloodthirsty rapist, Arthur is an ambitious gutter rat, Merlin’s a power-addicted weasel, Guinevere is a bandit, Lancelot is a kungfu master. And at some point, when you add all the other characters, your head can’t help but throb.
By Force Alone, in general, follows the outline of the Arthurian Legend, but everything in between has been made ten times darker, ominous, and bloody. If it’s gore and grime you crave, this is your book. I can’t help but admire the balls for pulling something like that off.
What made me decrease my final rating to 4/5* was not only the pace, though. There’s a multitude of characters. All the best-known characters and plot lines are here, but some less familiar (or at least less familiar to me), are present as well. It was very hard to keep up with them, let alone care about them. Most were sorely underdeveloped and added to the overall impression of a montage of the Arthurian Legend but as a book.
And they felt quite similar. All driven by the same things and dark desires, with an exception or two. Even the women felt the same, especially Nimue and the gang – seductive and dangerous. And power-hungry.
That being said, this drawback actually drives the point home. This is the dark, cut-throat reality of dark age Britannia, a photonegative of a romanticized story. And I loved it!
Would You Love It?
That… depends. It is a dense, plot-driven tale of brutality. I don’t like purely plot-driven stories, but that one didn’t even pretend to be otherwise, so kudos for that. The writing is rhythmic, but the language is crude and offensive. The characters’ thoughts, actions, and everything in between is violent.
But there is magic. And there is wonder. By Force Alone is like wading through blood and guts and enjoying the warmth. Absurd to hilarity and disturbing to the core.
And there you have it. Hope that explains why you’d need an open mind to go through this book. Lavie Tidhar has generously reminded us that the Romans were there. And then they left. Everything else is a blank slate Tidhar paints in red with wide and brave brushstrokes until the very end.
Would I recommend the book? Yes. But to a very specific sort of readership. It’s definitely not for everyone, especially not for those hoping to get another romantic and heroic retelling of the Arthurian Legend. It is an acquired taste that can last for a very long time.
p.s. Have that scene again. The song can set a good mood for when you crack open By Force Alone.