It’s a Kind of Magic: ‘The Buried Giant’ By Kazuo Ishiguro

This review first appeared on GeekDad.com in March 2016

robball ishiguro

The Buried Giant by Robert Ball. Used with Permission (http://www.robertmball.com/)

‘Should I fall and you survive, promise me this. That you’ll carry in your heart a hatred of Britons.’

‘What do you mean, warrior? Which Britons?’

‘All Britons, young comrade, even those who show you kindness.’

When I started my investigation into the current trend of “Literary SFF”, one of the books I was most keen to read was Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. The point of this series is to discover what literary heavyweights might create when using tropes that are traditionally considered genre. Whilst Ishiguro has written books with science fiction-fantasy elements before, most notably in Never Let Me Go, The Buried Giant caused something of a stir when it was first published, as it is out and out fantasy. There are no blurred lines. You can’t call it magical realism. It’s not speculative. It’s fantasy.

Whilst the labeling of novels can be helpful, particularly if you own a bookstore, they can also be misleading and used as a way to pigeonhole, denigrate, or ignore a novel’s worth. Define a novel as “genre,” and it is all too easy to dismiss. Conversely, labels can over-inflate opinion. Calling a novel “literary fiction” adds gravitas. Critics will often line up to sing a novel’s praises even if it’s dry and boring.

Of all the books I’ve read so far for the series, The Buried Giant is the one that most destroys the myth of labels. It contains many tropes associated with the fantasy genre–a quest, knights, ogres, and dragons–but it is also a work of rare beauty. A novel where every word has been weighed before use. The result is a story filled with layers and multiple meanings that might just be a work of genius.

The Buried Giant feels like a work of early fiction. A fairy tale filled with allegory, one shade away from oral storytelling. It recalls The Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote, and above all, The Death of King Arthur. (Arthur is named-checked a couple of times and Sir Gawain is a principal character–a nod to Professor Tolkien, perhaps?).

The setting is Dark Ages Britain. A time of myth and superstition. Even moving from town to town brings a sense of mystery and foreboding.  Villages of “Britons” lie close to newly forged Saxon settlements. Distrust exists between the indigenous (my word) population and the new arrivals. Mistrust is in the air.  The real-world parallels here are obvious.

This is not a traditional fantasy setting, which tends to feel like heroic quests in agricultural northern Europe. Instead, Ishiguro’s Britain feels like an agoraphobic’s worst nightmare.

…navigation in open country was something much more difficult in those days, and not just because of the lack of reliable compasses and maps. We did not yet have the hedgerows that so  pleasantly divide the countryside into field, lane and meadow. A traveller of that time would, often as not, find himself in a featureless landscape, the view almost identical whichever way he turned. 

This featureless and the difficulty of long distance communication is essential to the themes of the novel.

Above all, though, The Buried Giant is a quest story. Axl and Beatrice set out to visit their son, who left many years ago, and now lives in a settlement several days away. The couple are old, their usefulness to their community on the wane. One senses this is to be their final journey.

Much like the Wizard of Oz, they  meet people on the way, travelling the same road, who join their quest. They journey with a young boy cast out from his village, a formidable Saxon warrior, and the ageing Sir Gawain, one of the few remaining Knights of the Round Table. As the journey unfolds, a sense that all is not right gradually seeps into the tale. Most notably that memories are hard to keep a hold of. Nobody can remember very much other than shadows of the past.

buried giant covers

The US and UK covers side by side.

The prose is spare but beautifully constructed and, unlike most genre fantasy novels, there is little embellishment of the details. Like many fables and legends, The Buried Giant is laden with allegory. There are myriad interpretations and real-world parallels. Themes of loss, acceptance, and the dangers of ignorance bubble to the surface again and again.

‘…where once we fought for land and God, we now fought to avenge fallen comrades, themselves slaughtered in vengeance. Where could it end?’

The Buried Giant examines human nature, most particularly our inability to learn from the past. Closed-minded attitudes, superstition, and fealty to outmoded, incorrect assumptions seem reasonable when placed in the Dark Ages. Yet, transpose these attitudes to the 21st Century, which I believe Ishiguro intends us to do, and they begin to look like willful ignorance.

There were places where I worried that The Buried Giant’s delicate confection was going to fade away into nothing. The middle section left me restless, but as the novel moved into the final third, towards its devastating conclusion, I was gripped. On finishing, I was left wrung-out and overawed. The Buried Giant is no swords and sorcery epic, but a novel of rare and delicate beauty. Fantasy in setting, mythic in tone, but relevant to today, with a deep emotional resonance, I doubt I’ll read a better novel this year.

The wonderful illustration used at the top of this piece is by British illustrator Robert Ball. He has all sorts of equally awesome and geeky works of art at on his blog and at robertmball.com.

Advertisements

Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities

divine cities

This piece first appeared on GeekDad.com in Feb 2016

Robert Jackson Bennett’s  first Divine City novel, City of Stairstook me a little while to work my way into. I am happy to confess this is because I’m a little stuck in my ways. I like traditional epic heroic fantasy, probably because that’s what I grew up with. It’s my comfort food.

Reading City of Stairs was like my first experience in an Indian restaurant. My teenage self, up until that point had had a culturally sheltered, white middle-class upbringing. A group of us were taken deep into the city of Birmingham (UK), near where I grew up, for a curry. I had no idea what to expect.

I tentatively poked at my food, wondering whether it was safe to eat, before placing the hot, pungent, and slightly sour, meat-in-brown-sauce into my mouth. More dishes came; The famous Birmingham Balti, Sheek-Kebab, some onion in hot red sauce, the like of which I’ve never found since. The taste sensations that exploded in my head, where incredible and began a love affair with Indian food that is nearly in its thirtieth year.

My relationship with Jackson Bennett’s books is only fledgling in comparison but I am equally happy to gorge myself on the spicy, other-worldliness of his novels. At its heart, City of Stairs is a murder mystery, but what sets it apart is its setting. Part China Mieville, part Alif the Unseen, its an arabesque tale set in a secondary world. It’s a novel filled with allegory and allusion. It’s a modern day The Master and Margarita for the War on Terror generation.

The Divine Cities novels are about seeing things from the other person’s point of view. The books are set in a secondary fantasy world but Jackson Bennett subverts traditional genre ideas, particularly those of race and gender (i.e. he  doesn’t view everything from the perspective of white males). Doing so allows him to wipe the slate clean, erasing his readers’ preconceptions, before building something else equally magical. I think it’s the reforging process that makes the novel a slightly bumpy read. There’s a lot of information to process. Nothing is certain; everything is new and open to interpretation. There’s work to be done by the reader and that’s tiring, but then I found reading Bulgakov hard work too.

City of Stairs takes place in a world where gods once roamed the earth, only now they have gone, destroyed by a godless race they once held in thrall. It’s an intriguing platform on which to build a novel. How does a world used to dealing with deities and their miracles continue in the aftermath of their destruction?

The novel examines the perils of accepting religious dogma as truth, but also the importance of attempting to understand why a group believe the things they believe. With layers of story built up over centuries, and the mixed agendas held by those writing those stories, the true intention of a religious practice may have been lost. City of Stairs stresses how vital it is to understand those who are different to us. Knowledge may be power, but it can also be used to set us free. The real-world parallels are abundant.

citystairsart

A wonderful rendering of the City of Stairs by artist John Petersen. Copyright Broadway Books. Used with Permission.

I hadn’t necessarily expected a follow up to City of Stairs, but I was thrilled to find that there was one. Unlike its predecessor, I had no difficulties finding my way into City of Blades. Again, at the story’s heart is a criminal investigation. This time, missing persons. Once again, the nature of religion is the novel’s overriding theme.

City of Blades takes place several years after City of Stairs, in a completely new location, but one that is as vividly unusual as the setting of the first book. Some characters from the first book appear in the sequel, but not all of them. Time and politics have moved on.

I’m not sure whether it was because I had already tuned into the author’s world-building but I found the second book much easier going than the first. The story is excellent and the characters beguiling. There’s all manner of things  going on here, and the plot is neat and elegant. The narrative concerns the mysterious City of Blades, an afterlife for those who worship the Death Goddess, but as the Gods and their works were destroyed decades ago, can it really exist?

The Divine Cities series makes for an invigorating read, one that rewarded the effort needed to find my way into the first book. There is one more book in the pipeline, City of Miracles, a book which on the strength of Stairs and Blades, I am very much looking forward to reading. If you haven’t read any of Robert Jackson Bennett’s particularly flavor of fantasy, I can wholeheartedly recommend you do. Roast chicken and vegetables are always tasty, but few things excite the palette like an expertly prepared curry.

The Divine Cities series are published by Broadway Books in the US and Jo Fletcher Books in the UK. More of John Petersen’s artwork can be found hereMany Thanks to Jo Fletcher Books for sending me review copies of these two books. Robert Jackson Bennett tweets entertainingly at @robertjbennett

#WhereisSuzy – Dragonfish by Vu Tran

dragonfishTo celebrate the release of Vu Tran’s debut literary thriller, Dragonfish, the fine folks at No Exit Press have come up with a fun way to get the community talking about the book. Everything you need is in the description below. My effort is also included. Time to let your creativity off the leash: write something and share it on Twitter using the hashtag #WhereIsSuzy.

The Backstory

Robert, an Oakland cop, still can’t let go of Suzy, the enigmatic Vietnamese wife who left him two years ago. Now she’s disappeared from her new husband, Sonny, a violent Vietnamese smuggler and gambler who is blackmailing Robert into finding her for him.

As he pursues her through the sleek and seamy gambling dens of Las Vegas, shadowed by Sonny’s sadistic son, ‘Junior’, and assisted by unexpected and reluctant allies, Robert learns more about his ex-wife than he ever did during their marriage. He finds himself chasing the ghosts of her past, one that reaches back to a refugee camp in Malaysia after the fall of Saigon, and his investigation uncovers the existence of an elusive packet of her secret letters to someone she left behind long ago.

As Robert starts illuminating the dark corners of Suzy’s life, the legacy of her sins threatens to immolate them all.

The challenge:

Using only the information of the synopsis above, (though Google’s help might be acceptable) please write a blog post in 10 minutes as to where Suzy is. There is no right answer and no need to think about it for more than one minute. Instead, we’re seeking to display the creative possibilities of where a story can go.

We’d like to get as many people involved in this as we can in order to provide as many different ideas and outcomes as possible.

My Attempt – (It turns out writing is really hard!)

Suzy ended up in Malaysia after fleeing Saigon, where she had been a good-time girl for American servicemen. The Americans first found her across the Vietnam border in Laos, where she was transporting opium from the Golden Triangle.

The Americans, never officially in Laos, found her near the enigmatic ‘Plain of Jars’, but what exactly did she see there? Suzy’s secrets lead back through Laos, into Cambodia and a U.S. Secret Service bungled attempt at halting the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Was it a CIA mistake or did somebody put personal profit before the extermination of thousands of people?

A violent husband and his shadowy Vegas connections have forced Suzy to flee back to the town of her birth, to discover the truth of what she was unwitting part of  during the Vietnam War. Sonny is only part of the story. The CIA and a millionaire Vegas casino owner want to make sure Suzy never finds the truth and that Robert never finds Suzy.

Many Thanks to Alex at No Exit for inviting me to be part of this unusual blog tour. The other stories, including ReaderDad, Matt Craig’s can be found at #whereisSuzy on Twitter. To find out the real (yet fictional) answer to the question Vu Tran’s Dargonfish is available now