I have to tell you, kind reader, I am kinda over Arthurian retellings – or at least those that don’t have anything new to offer. There is an absolute butt-load (technical term) of books that tell the story of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Personally, when it comes to classic iterations of this tale as old as time, I think you can just read The Once and Future King by T. H. White and call it a day. I just think that the classic iteration of Arthur is kinda boring and we don’t need 45 books about how he yanked a sword out of a rock by virtue of cosmic destiny. But, interesting new takes on the Arthur legend with big spins, well now I might be game.
By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar, as the astute of you will have guessed from the title, is a grimdark retelling of the legend of Arthur with a focus on brute force being how he earned and kept his throne, not the divine right to rule. I suspect/hope I don’t need to give you a rundown of the plot of the book, By Force Alone follows the lore of Arthur more or less but with a couple of fun twists along the way. Where Force differs from other books in the genre is its focus on Merlin and Uther as the primary points of view. From this position, it serves as a major critique on divine right, stating that force alone and a tyrant’s willingness to use it secures the power of kings.
A focus on Merlin isn’t revolutionary in Arthurian tales, but this Merlin is certainly different. Tidhar paints Merlin as an “eldritch parasite” and I honestly could not come up with a more fitting description. Instead of your usual wise older teacher, this Merlin is young, shifty, manipulative, and obviously self-centered. He feels less like a mentor and more like that advisor character in Disney movies that is clearly the actual villain. When I started By Force Alone I was concerned that it might just be another grim-washed clone with hollow characters and I am happy to say that the cast has great depth. Merlin is an awful human, but he has layers of mystery and complexity that make him a fascinating POV to ride with. Merlins segments were by far the best and it felt like reading a new book whenever he took center stage.
The other character who steals the show is Uther, Arthur’s bombastic father who is often not talked about. Arthur actually doesn’t show up until a good way into the story and we begin our tale under the iron grip of his father. Uther is an awful tyrant to his core and builds the foundation upon which Arthurs criminal empire of knights will rise from. Uther doesn’t quite have the complexity of Merlin, but his POV is something I really haven’t had much time with when it comes to Camelot stories and it did definitely add a new dimension that I enjoyed.
As to the themes, I like them but I don’t think they are particularly poignant. I approve of the idea that the divine right of kings is bullshit and that history likely has painted conquerors with a golden brush when their legacy is actually stained by blood – but it’s not exactly a revolutionary take. While it’s fun to explore the idea of Arthur as a tyrant I don’t know if I needed a 400-page book making a detailed argument I think a lot of people would already agree with in this day and age.
Arthur himself, as always, is pretty boring as sin. In this instance I think that was the point, demonstrating that Arthur is nothing more than an idiot that was put on a pedestal, but that doesn’t actually make a very compelling character to follow. I don’t derive a lot of pleasure from seeing awful people bring about their own undoing with no outside agency, but that is a personal preference and I am sure that many will enjoy watching Arthur own himself.
In the end, By Force Alone does a great job distinguishing itself from other Arthurian tales through great characterization and original themes. But, the book didn’t give me a lot to think about or contemplate and that made it end up feeling a little shallow at the end. Still, if you are looking for a fresh take on the Knights of the Round Table then this could definitely be up your alley. It is probably worth reading for Tidhar’s brilliant Merlin character alone, but I am a hard sell on yet more stories about the jackass who yanked some metal out of a rock.
Rating: By Force Alone – 7.0/10