Encountering Lavie Tidhar’s THE ESCAPEMENT is, even at first brush, like entering a dizzying dream. Presented as a Western, epic fantasy, and a circus extravaganza—just to start—even its basic description is an impossible moebius strip of genres and themes. The latest in a decades-spanning career that has defied category, THE ESCAPEMENT must be read to be believed. But if you can believe, the rewards are ripe for the taking.
THE ESCAPEMENT weaves between two realities. The first is cheerless and mundane, occupied by a nameless protagonist grappling with his son’s dire illness. Meanwhile, in a world known as the Escapement, a man called “The Stranger” rides through a surrealist wilderness, braving its kaleidoscopic trials in search of a rare and powerful flower that blooms beyond the Mountains of Darkness.
It is in the Escapement that much of the book’s action occurs. There, The Stranger contends with wandering snake oil salesmen, gunslingers, acrobats and thieves—not to mention the titans that battle just beyond the horizon, roving bands of wild clowns, and avatars of the Tarot’s Major Arcana. Reality and the Escapement bleed into each other, their stories one and the same: the journey of a single man lost in a terrible wilderness, desperate to save the life of his young child.
The world of the Escapement is drawn strongly from the Western: A stranger rides into town, a train is beset by thieves, a trickster counts cards in a creaking saloon. Across the Stranger’s journey, he is party to fast-paced shoot-outs, the fall of corrupted mining towns, and invisible labyrinths that warp time and space. Weaving through the Stranger’s story are those of the bounty hunter Temperanza, a young gunslinger known only as the Kid on the run from the ruins of his past, and an enigmatic magician known as the Conjurer. These characters are drawn strongly from archetype, more tropes to add to THE ESCAPEMENT’s veritable stew.
But to describe the discreet tropes, arcs, and archetypes does little justice to the mind-bending experience of actually reading the novel. The world of the Escapement is a shared dreamscape—it is not only our protagonist who moves between realities. It is a land woven from the threads of a hundred different cultural influences and visions—from the minds, perhaps, of its many dreamers. The Escapement is a tapestry, a vibrant manifestation of the collective unconscious. It is a tangible representation of what humans do when they create and encounter art: the entering of a shared realm of associations and ideas. It is a place where the Stranger has power over his life, where he can do something more for his son than sit vigil at a bedside. Though its individual elements are cut from familiar cloth, their combination has created something wholly new, as any good work of art in any medium ought to. THE ESCAPEMENT is simply more honest about it, and in doing so reflects upon the experience of art itself. The combination of these disparate elements defies explanation because it is not meant to be explained. Like the protagonist’s grief, it is something that can only be felt.
THE ESCAPEMENT is an ambitious work. What seems at first a conflagration of disparate ideas and genres must somehow be brought together into thematic unity. It is a testament to Tidhar’s craftsmanship that this book actually works. It is a journey full of surprises wonderful and horrid in equal measure, all told in vivid and confident prose. Despite the grim stakes of its central narrative, the best thing to be said about the escapement is simply that it is extremely fun to read. It proceeds with relentless tension, and its disinterest in explaining itself results in mind-bending surprises at every turn. Its unapologetic weirdness is a welcome escape, an excuse to let go and enjoy the ride. In a world of increasingly fewer major publishers and the resultant narrowing of offerings, THE ESCAPEMENT is a welcome reminder that the unusual and the unexpected still flourish.