Black Gods Kiss by Lavie Tidhar, PS Publishing, h/b £20, Website
Reviewed by Allen Stroud
A muscular fantasy of five episodes, Black Gods Kiss is the sequel to the 2012 bestseller, Gorel & The Pot-Bellied God and collects five new adventures of Gorel of Goliris, set before and after the previous book.
Lavie Tidhar immerses us in the action straight away. As heir to the throne, Gorel is trying to find his way home to his kingdom. This makes him an itinerant wanderer who encounters different situations and circumstances along the way.
Much of the mythic base for these stories is unfamiliar to white western readers and the unconscious character image assumptions we make are deftly dispelled without highlighting or dwelling on them. Similarly the accepted fences around subject material in the genre are discarded. Gorel’s adventures are varied, adult, occasionally surreal and always interesting. Tidhar’s prose is confident and authoritative, painting scenes with the same epic quality as Moorcock might, but with an invocation of myth that draws on both the familiar and unfamiliar to leave lingering images in your mind.
Gorel’s weapons against this magic are his guns; placing him as champion of reason against the magic of the past, but this is no clear cut triumph of technology over superstition. In each adventure he is deeply affected by what he experiences.
The title story, ‘Black Gods Kiss’ explains Gorel’s personal plight and how a subtle trap affects him on his subsequent adventures. It also works well as an introduction to the mythos Tidhar is creating. The relationship between Gods and their followers is intimate and tangible. The mechanics of this fantasy construct are not revealed overmuch – a trap less accomplished writers might fall into – but remain mythical and illusive, invoking speculation as the best stories of the genre might.
The second story, ‘Buried Eyes’, is initially a treasure hunt and reveals more of the mysteries of Gods and magic in Gorel’s world. The illusion that enslaves villagers into a shared hallucination as they decay and die is borne from a refusal to accept the difficult changes of life, which can be a common theme for a ghost story. However, explored here, it takes on a new identity, based on the cultural values of the society portrayed, the iconography and mythic rituals.
‘Kur-a-len’, the third story is the longest of the collection and perhaps the most difficult to picture. The environment of a graveyard where spirits will not stay at their rest remains mutable as an image throughout the story and Gorel’s interactions with the living and the dead reflect this surreal landscape. Perhaps clarity of demarcation between life and death might make the story more accessible, but it would not reflect the nature of the folk it depicts. Once again, the quest for Goliris drives our hero to solve the mystery of murders. The value of life in this place is also difficult to determine, particularly when many return. Trust as well, as enemies and friends trade places at the side of Gorel.
‘The Dead Leaves’ is a more focused work, returning to the theme of Gorel being hired to achieve a quest and setting out to do so. Here, we have much of the classic structure in place – an old man asking Gorel to rescue his daughter. However, again Tidhar flavours the plot with his own turns, making it fresh. Our adversary is introduced as myth personified, his power undefined. We have blood rituals, sex, torture and the clash of progress with the frozen past. Again, Gorel is an agent of change, achieving his quest and learning more about his own psyche than he might wish.
Our last tale, White Queen, explores the quest vein again, but again turns differently and we learn more about the relationship between Gods and mortals. The strange ‘white skin’ kingdom Gorel visits again speaks directly to our character image assumptions and the plethora of different creatures alongside these people invoke fairy tales and traditional myth with a new spin. A Wicked Stepmother, bondage, a missing princess and seven strange dwarfs are all familiar components, but here they are re-arranged by the author into something both familiar and new. Amidst them, our gun wielding drug addict protagonist, sets about his task as he seeks again to learn the way to his absent homeland which remains as always, just out of reach.
Black Gods Kiss is a collection for readers seeking a different flavour to their fantasy. The use of familiar and unfamiliar myth, drawing on a multitude of world influences makes for innovative storytelling. At times, Gorel’s lack of progress towards his personal goal feels repetitive, but only in the way the stories begin, suggesting they’ve been prepared to be published in a more varied anthology and this is a minor distraction to a robust and appealing read.