Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition)

The legend of King Arthur, reimagined

A vicious, beautiful, profane and wickedly funny take, without the chivalry, divine right or holy quests

- VIVIAN SHAW

THERE are no in Lavie Tidhar’s Arthurian epic fantasy

By Force Alone.

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It is a vicious, beautiful, profane and wickedly funny reimaginin­g of the rise and fall of King Arthur without the chivalry, divine right or holy quests.

No one is pure of heart, no one is destined by God to rule; the right of kings is determined solely by the might of kings.

Arthur begins his career in a world that has moved on, a Londinium rebuilding itself from the wreck of Roman retreat, by establishi­ng himself as a precocious gang leader and cornering the drug market; the sword in the stone is a publicity stunt.

Guinevere, so far from the shy and delicate “white shadow” of Sutcliff or Lancelyn Green, leads her own all-female mercenary band, hired to take out King Pelles.

Lancelot is a Judean assassin who studied kung fu under martialart­s master Joseph of Arimathea. Galahad runs a brothel.

Merlin, inhuman and deeply cynical, is only in it for the power, which creatures like himself desire above all else.

Tidhar is playing what-if with the legend: What if these people were just people, rather than long shadows thrown across invented history? What if King Arthur were not High King because he was chosen by destiny so much as that he fought for it and won?

What if women were not just abstract objects to possess, but people with their own agency and motive force and career goals?

What if the Grail were not a holy Christian relic but something entirely different, alien, with its own compelling and corrupting power?

This kind of retelling offers a wealth of opportunit­y to examine aspects of the familiar story in a new light, and is both exciting and enormously satisfying to read.

It reminds me of Katherine

Addison’s recently released

in the level of creative insight and detail involved in the reimaginat­ion of a well-known narrative.

Of particular interest is the way Tidhar flips Arthur and Merlin on the moral axis. His Merlin is manipulati­ve, parasitic, using both Uther and subsequent­ly Arthur to get what he wants, drumming up xenophobic hatred among the locals to support Arthur’s cause, while Arthur is a murderous gang leader who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals.

Despite the complete break with the original version, their relationsh­ip works: king to trusted magical adviser.

The prose style is half of what makes the book so powerful. Tidhar is both clean and poetic, elegantly sparse but deeply evocative.

Every phrase is load-bearing.

The profanity serves its purpose. He switches between point-of-view characters and authorial voice seamlessly, using short almostchop­py sentences to give a sense of inevitable forward movement, events lensing into one another.

The frequent references to Greek philosophy in the narration both serve to underline the post-Roman intellectu­al landscape of the time and to create a kind of distance between the reader and the text, which increases that slightly dreamy sense of inexorable direction.

This story is going to happen; the terrible ending is going to occur, and we and the characters are swept along with it.

The narrative slows down a little and becomes less clear once we approach the Grail, but picks up again afterwards, accelerati­ng toward Camlann: inevitable, not just because we know the plot but because by now Merlin and Arthur have fought, schemed, murdered, lied and antagonise­d their way into a corner.

There is no way out but one, and that is the ending of the story. |

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