Lavie Tidhar’s new book Unholy Land came out last October and it’s… weird, even for Tidhar, a veteran of the weird and frequent editor of the Apex World SF Series. This novel looks deep at the human soul and the actions that drive men to do questionable things to survive. Unholy Land reveals both sides of an ethical dilemma by exposing the dark sides, the good intentions, and the branching effects.
A writer named Lior Tirosh gets on a plane to fly home to visit his war hero father in the Jewish state that the British government endorsed in East Africa, on the borders of Kenya and Uganda, called Palestina. Confused yet? Waittheresmore. Jerusalem is spelled countless different ways and considered to be an international city – it’s still in the Levant. The Jewish state came about just after the death or Theodor Herzl in 1904 so the Holocaust didn’t happen in this universe (though World War II did, and Hitler got his comeuppance in 1948). Historical sidenote: The British government really did explore the option of partitioning land from Uganda to use to establish a Jewish state. In Tirosh’s world, the Zionist movement supported the idea. Pretty soon though, not one but two spy agencies begin following Tirosh’s whereabouts. Tirosh’s plane goes from Berlin and lands in Ararat City, the capital.
The official intelligence service, in the guise of the brutal Inspector Bloom, wants him because Tirosh witnessed a wrong place, wrong time murder. It doesn’t help that Tirosh has a niece with politically compromising opinions about the treatment of the local tribes who dwelt in Palestina before the Jewish settlement. A mysterious woman wants to find him because he flew in from a completely different universe. Tirosh, more out of familial concern than for patriotic reasons, sets off trying to to find the niece on his own. Like any good detective story, Tirosh’s quest to find his lost niece twists and turns to the point where Tirosh himself doesn’t even know why he’s being dragged off to various corners of the country. It certainly doesn’t help that his memories keep shifting. Tirosh sometimes remembers a wife that he had divorced, a son back in Germany, but everything keeps getting muddled for him. Bloom, meanwhile, follows at a menacing distance, eagerly cracking heads of anybody who might be a threat to the security of Palestina. No matter where the chase takes them, all clues seem to point to the mysterious forest on the edge of Palestina, which the natives say is magic.
A good noir can be hard to find, but especially one set in a sci-fi climes. The government of Palestina is authoritarian, but not in a flamboyantly dystopic way — it’s dirty, hard and guilt-ridden from the actions it takes to survive. Tirosh’s slog through the mire of family history, especially the lives claimed by his father, only becomes more complicated as he grows less sure that his own family exists back home. The weight of Bloom’s fists only seems to increase with each punch he throws or death he orders. Though I read Unholy Land back in October, it keeps surfacing in my mind and a book that won’t stay down has the greatest impact. It will be well worth a reread someday and all the more enjoyable for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.
Three out of five stars.
Favorite quote: “All history is nothing but a lie we tell ourselves, a story. The land is always there, indifferent to our suffering, our wars, the names we choose to call it.”