Friday, August 11, 2023

Unholy Land by Lavie Tdihar

This is a story of layers, of successive revelations. I'm going to try to avoid spoiling those, but it's a danger. So if you hate all spoiling, you may want to go into this book cold.

Unholy Land was Lavie Tidhar's new novel for 2018, after Central Station and before By Force Alone. It looks like an alternate history at first glance, and is that. It's more than that, but, again, I don't want to spoil things, so I'll hint and nod rather than explain.

Lior Tirosh is a detective novelist, probably in his thirties. He's not unsuccessful - he has a career, a reasonably high-powered London literary agent, and fans across the globe - but his books are somewhat formulaic, not nearly as literary as he'd like to think they are, and not nearly as popular as he'd hope. He has a broken marriage behind him and one young son, Isaac, whose fate not quite clear as the novel begins.

Tirosh is flying from Berlin, where he lives, back to his homeland, to see his aged father. That homeland is the first SFnal element of the book: Tirosh was born in Palestina, a land the British Empire carved out of East Africa in the early 20th century as a new homeland for Jews. It's now some years later - maybe the modern day, maybe the end of the 20th century? - and Palestina is now trying to build a wall around itself, to close off the Disputed Territories, keep out terrorists, and assert its control. Otherwise, this world is similar to our own, though maybe with less genocide - WWII seems to have been smaller, mostly an imperial struggle between Germany and England that ended with Hitler's assassination. The big empires have been broken up, we think - but, it seems, later and/or slower than it happened in our world.

Tirosh is one of three main characters in the book, one of three viewpoints. Telling you much of anything about the other two would give everything away. Tirosh is seen in third person; the others each take first and second. And they are deeply tied to further SFnal ideas that bubble up in Unholy Land, as Tirosh lands in Ararat City and re-engages with the land of his birth and with the idea of a Jewish homeland. With all of the ideas of Jewish homelands, Palestina and Israel and others - all of the ways his people thought of finding a place for themselves, with and without shoving everyone else out.

Tirosh is obviously something of a stand-in for his author: their names are similar, their careers are similar. (I can't speak to their personal situations, though, from The Escapement, I think Tidhar also has a son, and that son may have had some serious illness.)

Unholy Land gets more SFnal from that initial alt-history premise; the other viewpoints are deeply intertwined with a deeper plot with larger implications. Tirosh himself is something in the territory between bystander, vital witness, and catalyst - this all could possibly happen without him, but his being there makes it easier, maybe even inevitable.

It all moves quicker and quicker, as the problems increase and the dangers heighten: there's plenty of violence and action and mystery, as Tirosh navigates a world less familiar than he expected and finds himself acting like one of his own characters.

Unholy Land raises big questions and grapples strongly with them, in the ways strong SFF can - making philosophical ideas real and graspable, things that people can fight over and shove societies into. I've been impressed by all of Tidhar's books I've read, and this was another thought-provoking, powerful, strongly written one.

No comments:

Post a Comment