Confession: in a parallel reality not unlike this one, there exists a version of myself who didn’t click on one of the hundreds of recommended book lists littering her feed, didn’t stumble upon the best book that she would ever read, didn’t spend months tracking it down through online vendors, and didn’t become obsessed with the works of author Lavie Tidhar. I shudder at the very notion. I hope the multiverse can forgive my sins.
There are few books on my overcrowded shelves for which I have the same level of reverence and warmth as a 2013 work of speculative historical fiction inconspicuously titled The Violent Century, in which we follow a band of artificially created superhumans as they plunge into and become witnesses to the military conflicts of the past century.
Maybe it was the non-linear plot structure. Maybe it was the complex questions of life — ‘what does it take to be a hero?’ — being asked in simple ways amid a fantastical environment. Maybe it was the diversity and nuance of characters. Maybe it was Tidhar’s poetic words disguised as fiction. Whatever it was, I emerged out of my reading stupor intoxicated, bewitched, and slightly in love.
What followed was a binge of nearly all Tidhar’s books that I could get my hands on, such as The Bookman series. Set in a Victorian, steampunk, alternate history, the books’ world is ruled by the British Lizardine Empire where all myths and legendary characters are real.
Various characters set out on a quest to find the mysterious ‘Bookman,’ who seems to hold the key to the eccentricities of this world and is at the centre of all of its secrets and lies. Protagonists include Milady de Winter, Gilgamesh, and Victor Hugo.
Then there was Osama, for which the author received the World Fantasy Award. The book follows a private detective as he tracks down the author of pulp fiction novels featuring fictional terrorist Osama Bin Laden.
When I was done, one question wouldn’t stop nagging at me: why was this guy not more famous? I felt like I was part of a great big hoax, and at any moment, Tidhar’s work would be revealed as a great phenomenon of pop-cultural literary acclaim — and I would be the last simpleton who hadn’t known who he was. Cue the off-camera laugh track.
The best way that I can describe Tidhar is that he is Neil Gaiman if you were to replace gothic with science fiction. Both straddle the line between reality and legend; both create the most intricate ecosystems; both twist pop culture and produce characters to whom we can almost draw real world parallels; both plunge their readers into an uncanny valley.
However, one is the most well-known fantasy author of our generation, and the other’s books have to be ordered almost exclusively online because brick-and-mortar businesses cannot make the space. I’ll let you put down wagers as to who is who.
In a world where the speculative and metaphysical are being brought into the public’s view more and more — such as the massively successful Spider-Man into the Spider-verse, screen adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s work in The Man in the High Castle and Electric Dreams, and the oversaturation of superhero content giving way for counter-narratives like Amazon’s The Boys — it seems like the awe-inspiring workings of Tidhar’s mind should fit right in.
So I encourage, implore, and beg you to do yourself a favour and discover the best fantasy author of this generation before it is too late — before producers catch on, capitalize on Tidhar’s world, and inevitably squander its magic.