Monday, 16 March 2015

Black Gods Kiss by Lavie Tidhar | review by Stephen Theaker

If I were a judge and this were a court and the case were that of Black Gods Kiss by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing, 184pp), I would have to recuse myself, because by this point I am such a fan of this writer’s work that my impartiality would be in serious doubt. Cloud Permutations, Martian Sands, The Violent Century: each has been remarkable in its very own way. If I were writing a list of my favourite books of the last few years they would all show up on it.

Fortunately this is not a court, not a case, and I am not a judge, and you are quite capable of taking my admiration for this author’s work into account when reading the review.

Perhaps my favourite of his books so far was Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God, to which this is both prequel and sequel. Gorel is an “exile, mercenary, hired killer, thief, and what he liked to think of as odd jobs man”, searching for his home of Goliris, which from the bits we learn about it throughout the book doesn’t sound so great. For example, in a wasteland Gorel asks what caused the desolation: “Only one word was whispered, sometimes, amidst the branches, in the falling of leaves.” Goliris!

In the first story here, “Black Gods Kiss”, Gorel acquires his addiction to the dust of gods. He is hired to kill a goddess, Shar, who has preyed on the men of a village. A kiss from her leaves him craving the essence of the gods. It is how they bind their followers to them, as addicts. This curse is at times of use to Gorel: its hold so tight it shatters illusions, as in “Buried Eyes”, where he encounters a town ruled over by a sorcerer of Goliris.

The third story, “Kur-a-Len”, is the longest, at about seventy-five pages, and is divided into six episodes. Gorel has come to the Garden of Statues, a colossal graveyard where “a thousand thousand graves gleamed as one”, in hope that someone of Goliris may be buried there. In return for the help of the cemetery’s caretaker in finding them, he takes on the role of security guard or sheriff, and must deal with both dead and living troublemakers.

The fourth story is the shortest, “The Dead Leaves”. Gorel takes his guns to kill a man in the Deadlands, paid with god’s dust by a sorcerer who sacrifices his life so that Gorel might rescue his daughter. In the fifth story, “White Queen”, he gets involved in a messed-up version of the Snow White story.

He doesn’t find his way home, not in this book – some say the world he is lost in is infinite – but he finds a few clues, gets his fix, and has a lot of well-written sex. Gorel isn’t picky: gods, queens, ghouls and zombies all get their turn, even though it doesn’t always do the trick: “Sex was sex and it did not fulfil him. Nothing did but the Black Kiss”.

Pot-Bellied God was subtitled a “Guns & Sorcery Novella”, and that’s what this is, classic heroic fantasy with a hero as selfish as Conan, as miserable as Elric and as crafty as the Gray Mouser, but who carries a pair of guns instead of a sword: “fine, hand crafted things, with grips of dark, strong wood and the small, exquisitely wrought silver pattern of a seven-pointed star on each: the ancient sign of Goliris.” There are similarities too with Stephen King’s gunslinger from the Dark Tower: the episode in which that character fought an entire town would have fit into this volume very neatly. If you liked that, you’ll probably enjoy this.

The writing is as good as in Tidhar’s other books, the atmosphere murky and groggy, the language thick and sticky. Gorel swears, which always seems surprising though it shouldn’t. It’s not unusual for dialogue from different characters to appear in the same paragraph, and even in the same sentence – lazy readers should be on their guard. My overwhelming feeling upon reading it is gratitude that such an exceptional writer chooses to write the kind of books I want to read. And if that sounds too gushy, you can’t say you weren’t warned! *****

Available from PS Publishing.

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