I haven't written anything for about 2 years!
Read an interview with Lavie here – I think it is fair to say that the author of By Force Alone might be slightly bemused by what follows! His starting point and mine are a long way apart. Though, I should say, I loved it.
I – anatomy of a love – ancient forests, greenery, winter, music.
I don’t know when I first saw John Boorman’s Excalibur but it was at some point during my teen years and I fell for it hard. I still love it – it is bonkers in all the right ways: low comedy and inflated gravitas (is that a tautology!?); weird giggles and absurd seriousness; Nigel Terry and Nicol Williamson! Later I tried watching BBCs Merlin and hated its tepid lack of risk and anaesthetising safe-blanket of mediocrity (lol). Camelot, despite the mad genius of Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero is unwatchable. I didn’t really watch Robin of Sherwood when it was first on – we were one of those bizarre households that shied away from ITV - but I watched the repeats. Actually I can watch almost any incarnation of Hood and be happy. As a (young) 13 year old I loved the mysterious wintery atmosphere of the BBC’s Box of Delights. Weirdly perhaps I associate Blakes 7 with all of this too, partly to do with tone and atmosphere. A favourite episode was/is Season 1’s Project Avalon – even the word is enough to set me off - and there were enough woods and forests in various episodes to reinforce the connection. The evocative music that accompanied all of these – Wagner and Orff (yes, problematic I know), Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony, Clannad (!), THE BLAKES 7 THEME (!!) – were all incredibly important for connecting meaning, atmosphere and tone in my yearning, impressionable brain.
Clearly I am a child of popular culture. No Geoffrey of Monmouth or Thomas Mallory for me, even in adulthood. Later in life I relished Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. As a school librarian I finally got round to Alan Garner (love) and Susan Cooper (wanted to love) too. There is something about the mystery and the history of it all that I find irresistible. Plus I love swords and monsters, weirdness and witches, ancient forests and dreams of a better world. So can I happily romanticism all that Celtic, foresty, standing stones, myths of Britain nonsense? Indubitably yes.
Love and critique can go hand in hand of course - my other favourite Arthurian tale is Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur. And I’m sure there have been other irreverent takes on mythic Britain without having to reference Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
But is the residing emotion in all this nostalgia? Or something infected with nostalgia? Well, I think there are good reasons to appreciate, or love, all the books, films and TV programmes above. By Force Alone critiques the Arthurian legend - and rightly so – but it is also imbued with wonder and mystery, weirdness and a surreal atmosphere at one with many of those other loves.
II – patriotism, yawn.
By Force Alone raises questions about nationalism, Englishness and other thorny issues and so is extremely relevant and topical.
We’re being fed the poison of nationalism in larger and larger doses by a ruling class beginning to choose reaction, and fascism, over democracy and law.
We’ve always had progressives, from George Orwell, through Billy Bragg to Rebecca Bailey Long try to reclaim patriotism for the left. Now we have the reactionary environmental nationalism of Paul Kingsnorth and his ilk crystallizing into even more dangerous formulations as the Right comes to terms with the climate crisis. Nationalists call on every resource they can summon up to convince us that Englishness is a Thing to be treasured and protected, nurtured and returned to its former glory.
III – anachronism (and I don’t mean the Blade Runner or the Talking Heads references)
The risk with anachronism in By Force Alone is that you might reinforce the idea that certain concepts and ideologies really did exist before their time. That risk – when it comes to ideas about nationalism – is worth considering because most people are unaware of how new these ideas really are. Most nationalists won’t have read Anderson, Gellner and Hobsbaum, let alone recent books by Valluvan, Niven and others. Nor will they care. They are content with spinning common sense, founding myths, supposed golden ages and the rest. Does By Force Alone destabilise and ridicule nationalism whilst still, paradoxically, keeping it in place? [Genuine question and I would have to reread the novel to take it, and myself, more seriously]
IV - serendipity
I knew nothing about By Force Alone. It has just been serendipity that my renewed ability – more, urgent need - to read coincided with a new Tidhar novel. Arthur, Excalibur, Camelot…wtf, I thought. But I love Tidhar’s writing so…wtfn, I thought.
V – the profane and the sacred
There is some on the nose silliness in this novel. There are parts I might even call cheesy. There were moments when I worried that writing nationalism back into the Dark Ages, as discussed above, was a dangerous game. There were moments when this reader who generally tries to think the best of his fellow humans was dismayed by the tired view of humanity, the violence and the miserableness on display.
Tidhar uses bathos and anti-climax in VERY funny ways. It is funny in a way that reminded me of Douglas Adams. I’d suggest that this is more Hitchhiker’s Guide for the 2020s than a companion to the novels of Richard Morgan or Joe Abercrombie. I was reminded again of comparisons I made between Tidhar and Mike Harrison when I reviewed Central Station. Something to do with skill involved in the use of lists and language, and the way they build their worlds.
It works as a bestiary and compendium of mythical Britain. It works as a book of monsters. It works because Tidhar’s love and relish for the writing of all this stuff is so apparent. It works because somehow it is incredibly moving – despite the Pythonesque irreverence, the changes in tone that should be jarring, the abundance of references to popular culture that should be jarring. It works because, somehow, the book manages to set its righteous anger and its harshness alongside genuine compassion. It works because it is, to sound far too much like a blurb, a work of wonderous imagination and extraordinary skill. It works because there is reverence for history, for learning and the wonders of the universe that sits side by side with its low humour and burning fury. It works because of the ZONE!
VI – a disagreement
Warren Ellis has just recommended the novel and concludes that it is “very, very cold”. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s full of heart. If Tidhar’s Guinevere has a little bit of The Bride in her then By Force Alone is for me is more Kill Bill than Goodfellas (make sure you read the interview above!). And I think Kill Bill has a LOT of heart. I raced through it, and kept trying to slow myself down so I could relish the details. Fool that I am, it made me cry. I loved it. I refer you to Part I….
Don’t you love how the sequence of your reading raises new questions and forces you to rethink? The book I’m reading now is also mind-blowingly good (in very different ways) - Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor and translated by Sophie Hughes. Blimey, if I thought there was some pessimism and misanthropy in By Force Alone then I’ve been forced to rethink!