SCI FICTION, December 28, 2005

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"The Dope Fiend" by Lavie Tidhar
"The Dope Fiend" by Lavie Tidhar is a fascinating story, dense with information and arcane references. The story takes place in 1920’s London, in an underworld ruled by gangs, drug dealers, and dangerous angels. What’s more, it is based on true events, and the characters of Edgar Manning, Billie Carleton, and Brilliant Chang were real people.

Mr. Tidhar’s strength lies in weaving the factual and the fantastical together.  Actual events are interspersed with Voodoo, Kabbalah, and Hermetic rituals, and the narrator, the fallen Tzaddik (a righteous person in Judaism, a link between God and its people) is torn between the dirty underground world of post-WWI London and even darker, more menacing spheres of existence.

The story is introduced by a lovely poem by James Laver (the same one who wrote a book on Nostradamus, I assume), a friend of Aleister Crowley. At first, I didn’t give it much thought, but when the Hermetic rituals made an appearance, I realized that it wasn’t a coincidence. And this is just one example of many delightful connections that appear throughout this story.

The Tzaddik, the narrator of the piece, cuts a fascinating figure. He is the Guardian who abandoned his duty for cocaine and opium. His weakness removes him from the realms of the immortals, humanizing him, making him sympathetic. Although he cannot be killed by regular means, there are enemies powerful enough to accomplish that—and they make for intimidating antagonists, not evil, but free of human constraints and thus terrifying.

The story is not without flaws—at places, the descriptions feel somewhat overused ("caught in a web of lies," wine like blood, screams echoing through the prison, description of a dark opium den); moreover, the dialog does not always ring true.  Many of the characters have the same lyrical voice as the narrator. The first scene seemed extraneous to the rest of the story, and, though it introduced some of the players, its effect on the rest of the story didn’t justify its length.

However, the story more than makes up for these minor gripes, and I encourage those who enjoy complex plots and entangled religions to give this one a close read. There is a lot of truly interesting stuff, and a whole fascinating world that will remind of itself again and again.

I am not going to give away the plot; I enjoyed its twists and turns so much that it would be wrong to take away the joy of discovery. A recommended read, and sadly the last one from SCI FICTION.  It went out on a good note; still, I’ll miss it terribly.