King Arthur’s got to be pretty high on the list of the oldest fandoms ever. Scholars don’t agree exactly when or where Arthur first showed up, but our modern figure has his origins in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 work, History of the Kings of Britain. Most recently, Lavie Tidhar, usually more of a science fiction and horror writer, has taken Arthurian myth into his own hands with By Force Alone, his latest fantasy novel that imagines a gory, irreverent Arthur clawing his way to the throne of England against a villainous King Leir. However, darker, edgier Arthur isn’t without it’s own history. In the 2004 film King Arthur, a Roman Arthur fought off barbarians, while in the 2017 film, King Arthur, the king was raised by prostitutes and had to fight Jude Law (we did a review). By Force Alone, however, gives even edgy King Arthur a twist of black humor even it gives frequent shoutouts to past Arthur myths.
Everybody from Arthurian myth shows up in some way, even Jude Law’s character. The story opens up with King Vortigern’s troops losing a battle to King Uther. Vortigern is actually thought to be a historical British king, which sets the tone for the rest of this take. After Vortigern, Merlin shows up (of course), along with Pellinore and Questing Beast, Hector, Kay, Bors, Morgan, Morgause, the Green Knight, and, of course Guinevere. King Arthur nerds will love that a lot of this book comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth, including Leir, which is also ultimately the source of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
As much as there is for fans of the classics to love, there’s plenty of new material here. Guinevere has a pet dragon, in a playful jab at another fantasy queen we love, Kay likes boys now, and Pellinore and the Questing Beast have an even stranger relationship. Plus, those old Norman romances have become this generation’s version of naughty. However, knowing the myths doesn’t change the fact that they’re the old familiar myths. Recreating them is a fine catwalk between necessary subversion and innovation. Most of the innovation here comes in bloody fashion with strong language or a raunchy joke. When Arthur pulls the sword from the stone, he does so completely naked in the middle of being beaten to death by a knight over drug dealing. Guinevere is a warrior princess, which isn’t exactly Mallory, but she runs with a crowd of fellow valkyries that make jokes about STDs. It forms something of a pattern unto itself, and leaves the myth awkwardly dangling between familiar and repetitive.
By Force Alone isn’t the first Arthur reimagining and it won’t be the last. Fans who love their King Arthur will certainly admire the parade of cameos and the sarcastic digs at myth here. However, the majesty and adventure that previous adaptations capture seems to get lost in the game of subversion and wisecracking. Still, Arthur’s Arthur, and however many fans have existed since Geoffrey of Monmouth always have loved Arthur stories.
Page count: 428
Three stars out of five.
Favorite quote: “And you will be left to rot and your bones to bleach for centuries, for curious grave robbers to eventually come, and dig your sorry carcass up, and puzzle over your garments and all your assorted crap to try and figure out questions such as what roles did women play in this society.”