The legend of King Arthur has been told and retold for hundreds of years. The tale of a noble King and his trusted and incredibly powerful companions have been done endlessly and in pretty much every possible way, to limited success. Enter Lavie Tidhar, an accomplished master of the narrative remix. Tidhar’s previous work is filled to the brim with new and interesting takes on history and myth, and the results are always mesmerising. And of course, he’s taken something that’s been done way too many times and found a way to make it look new and interesting while still keeping its classic appeal.

By Force Alone is the version of the Arthurian myth that imagines every single one of these heroes as absolute bastards. The Sopranos meets Excalibur, by way of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The main characters are vicious gangsters, and Camelot is not some miraculous paradise, rather it’s a grimy dive that people love to tell tall tales about once they’ve left the place.

However, this isn’t a tawdry grim-dark remix of the well-known stories; rather, it’s a refreshingly honest and brutal look at human nature and power. Just one that has some rather memorable bits of fantasy action mixed in. It would easy to dismiss By Force Alone as a modern political allegory, but it’s certainly there if you want it; Arthur is presented as a thoroughly unlikeable chap who gets away with horror by playing to the crowd and telling them what they want to hear. He’s a pure demagogue, but also a sword-wielding bravo and maniac. Merlin is both a cunning master of magic but also a skilled spin-doctor and weaver of lies. He’s also a mystical parasite of sorts. Myth serves to amplify the commentary on the human condition.

Both Guinevere and Lancelot get a similar merciless treatment, with the latter being a blend of crime-boss and master social-manipulator, while Lancelot feels more parody than man, being something of a ninja-assassin maniac than anything else. The incredibly hyped nature of these characters leads to some explosive scenes and some truly staggering writing.

The narrative does tend to flit around a lot. Tidhar clearly wants to get as much of the myth into one volume as he can, and so the story does tend to bounce around a bit. We flash from one moment of brooding monarchy to incredible violence to crime-powered shenanigans quite rapidly. As such, this isn’t the sort of book that’s great for a single-sitting read.

By Force Alone isn’t for everyone; if you haven’t enjoyed Tidhar’s previous work, then this won’t appeal. But if you’re looking for a new take on King Arthur and chums, then check this out.