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

This review first appeared on GeekDad.com in March 2016

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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.

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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.

#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 

A Woven Cloth of Gold – ‘Arcadia’ by Iain Pears

This review fist appeared on GeekDad on 4/1/2015 

arcadiaukIain Pear’s Arcadia is a piece of precision literary engineering. I’ve realised recently, that a novel’s structure is very important to me. I don’t like structure to overshadow the substance of a novel, but I do find quirky or unusual constructions very appealing.

So it is with Arcadia, a novel, if its app is to believed, that has chapters which can be read in any order. I read Arcadia in paper format, forwards from page one, so I can’t verify the truth of this statement (Pears explains in this interesting Q&A, how the book format is but a single narrative route through his creation), but I can confirm that story does fold back over on itself.

How does it do this? Pears, not traditionally a science fiction writer, employs some commonly used devices of the genre to create a mind-bending but wholly satisfying tale. To say more would give the game away.

As Arcadia opens, Henry Lytten, an Oxford professor, is a writing a fantasy novel. He’s not the first to do this, and it will delight Tolkien fans that Lytten is a small-time member of the Inklings. Prof. Tolkien doesn’t feature directly in the novel, but he does touch its edges a couple of times, which is a pleasing addition to proceedings.

Where Tolkien created Middle Earth as a vehicle for myth and language, Lytten wants to build a realistic working society.

“No goblins,” he said. “This is serious, I want to construct a society that works. With beliefs, laws, superstitions, customs. With an economy and politics. An entire sociology of the fantastic.”

Things become more interesting when a young girl who feeds Lytten’s cat discovers a peculiar portal in the professor’s basement. She walks through it and, like C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe, it transports her into another world.

The girl quickly ducks back to her own world, but not before interacting with one young boy. This brief encounter has deep ramifications for the world she’s visited. Things become more peculiar when Lytten subconsciously adds a young girl into his story. We are left wondering is Lytten controlling events with his narrative, or does his narrative somehow control the events around him?

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The route through the maze. Schematic of interlocking worlds from the Touchpress ‘Arcadia’ app.

Additional narrative strands are added, with chapters that detail life in the fictional state of Anterworld, and, more curiously, a tale from a dystopian far off future. This features an Earth with a ravaged surface, crumbling societies, and humans that are enhanced by implants. In the far north of Scotland, a brilliant but querulous mathematician and physicist has invented a machine that can open portals into alternate dimensions.

How does this fit in with Professor Lytten’s comfortable Oxford home and his fantastic creation? The answer to that question forms the spine of the novel, and the reader’s voyage of discovery to find its truth is rich and enjoyable.

The narrative’s construction is faultless. Lytten manages to weave parochial college life, future dystopia, mythical fiction, quantum physics, and even Cold War espionage into a compelling, brain-massaging whole. I wouldn’t want every novel I read to be like Arcadia, but I found the entire reading experience invigorating. By taking what are essentially tired tropes, Pears has created something innovative and interesting to read.

Arcadia is a fine novel that I think achieves everything it set out to do. Whilst I haven’t read all of the electronic version, the Arcadia app is elegant and appealing. Touchpress, the company that built the app, also created the excellent Elements app, so it has been built by a team with a great pedigree. With the app, Pears offers his readers yet another layer of innovation to his genre-borrowing yet ground-breaking novel.

I was sent a copy of this book to review by its UK publisher, Faber & Faber. Arcadia is out now in the UK

‘Slade House’ by David Mitchell

slade houseThis post first appeared on GeekDad on 10/12/2015

Having started with an author I’d never read for my first literary SFF read, my second choice of writer put me on much more familiar ground. David Mitchell is one of my favorite authors.

Ever since I first read his masterpiece of interlocking short stories, GhostwrittenI wait impatiently for his next book to arrive, devour it almost instantly, and then start the wait again.

The sudden arrival of Slade Housea little over a year since I read The Bone Clockswas a very welcome surprise (the usual wait between novels is around four years). When the book arrived, the comparatively fast turnaround time was explained. Compared with previous novels, Slade House is a slim 233 pages, and the print is fairly large too.

The basis of the stories in the book came from Mitchell’s storytelling tweets from around the time that The Bone Clocks was published. Whilst Mitchell’s internet presence is fairly low key, he’s not afraid to harness its story-telling power.

I said that Slade House contains “stories,” so is this a novel or a set of short stories? Both. Mitchell is the master of morphing short story collections into novels. He most famously employed this device in Cloud Atlas, a novel in which the stories are nested inside one another, and where the whole novel has an axis of symmetry through its central tale.

There’s nothing so complicated here. What we have with Slade House is five stories told sequentially in time. Each story takes place on the 31st of October when, every nine years, the mysterious Slade House magically appears in the middle of a suburban street. The final story takes place on Halloween 2015.

Mitchell’s stories are ghost stories in the grand tradition. All are spooky, menacing, and a little bit scary. All set in the eponymous, haunted, Slade House. Whilst each story in the books could probably stand on its own, each one builds on what came before. Little bits of information are drip fed to the reader as each set of characters enters the house to challenge the horror behind the small black gate in the wall.

Slade House exists in the same world as Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. Does this matter? Ultimately, yes. The first four stories would be fine, but number five, the one that contains the novel’s denouement, would be greatly diminished were you not familiar with the concept of what exactly a Bone Clock is. I frankly think you’d be baffled and a little cheated that the novel ended they way it does. If you haven’t read The Bone Clocks yetit’s a fine novel that will most certainly reward your attention.

Slade House is probably less SFF than both The Bone Clocks and Cloud AtlasThere are supernatural elements, and certainly something fishy going on, but until the final pages there is very little of the science fiction motif that underpins The Bone Clocks.

Why do I like Mitchell’s novels so much? Partly it’s the audacious structures he uses, but mostly it’s his use of language. It probably helps Mitchell is about my age and his upbringing in “The Midlands” is similar to mine. His semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green, a story about a teenage boy, is set about twenty miles from where I spent my teenage years. Needless to say, I loved it. Mitchell’s cultural grounding feels like my cultural grounding.

But you don’t have to have lived just south of Birmingham (UK) to like his books. Like all great writers, Mitchell has that knack of pulling a short concise metaphor out of the air, that perfectly encapsulates a feeling or notion you’ve had, but can never quite describe. He notices the small details in life that you don’t notice you’ve noticed. Things you don’t realize you’re aware of until Mitchell points them out to you.

I very much enjoyed reading Slade HouseIt is certainly one of his most accessible novels, and I would recommend it for those who had never read him, were it not for its dependence on having read The Bone Clocks to get the most from it.

Whilst the books is certainly enjoyable, I don’t think this is a novel that will extend Mitchell’s legend as a writer. It’s an entertaining story, well executed, but it doesn’t play with genre or structure in the way Cloud Atlas or The Bone Clocks does. A good novel then, but not a great one. 

Many thanks to Nicky of Hodder Books UK, for sending me a copy of this book for my literary SFF project. Next up is Iain Pears’ multi-dimensional, time travel novel Arcadia.

Get Lost in a Good Book – ‘Pierre the Maze Detective’

I started writing this review on Friday afternoon. It’s a book that presents fictional representation of Paris. In the meantime terrible events took place in the real city. Pierre the Maze Detective takes place in a happier world. My heart goes out to all those affected. I wish that the world was a simpler place where its worst crime was a dastardly mastermind stealing a maze stone, and that all problems could be solved by a diminutive detective wearing plus-fours and stripy socks. Sadly, things just aren’t like that. 

pierreLots of children’s books come into our house. Many of which are very good. Some though are exceptional and make me almost uncontrollably excited. My childhood is well past me now, but the very best of of children’s books reignite that essence of child inside me, leading me to caper about in a way that embarrasses the children. Pierre the Maze Detective is one such book.

I loved puzzle books as a child and still do, but don’t often find the time to explore them. This one demands to be pored over, every page has a multitude of things to see; jokes, quirks and above all, mazes. I forgot to mention, I love mazes even more than I enjoy puzzle books.

I’ll be honest. Where’s Wally has never really done it for me. It’s diverting for a while, but at the end of the day it’s just starting a pictures. Pierre and his creators, Hiro Kamigaki and the gang at IC4Design take things one step further.

This is like the Ultimate Alphabet for maze-freaks. There is just so much stuff to see. Each maze pulls you in as you find more and more little details. This is the sort of book you sit down to look at for five minutes and find yourself still there half and hour later.

There are sixteen mazes in all. Each double-page spread has a theme and a main maze. There are many smaller mazes within and numerous hidden objects to discover too. Some of the hidden things are generic, such as gold stars and red trophies, whilst others are tailored to the page’s theme, such as the must-see exhibits at the museum. This gives the book an extra dimension and, combined with breathtaking attention to detail, makes it captivating.

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My favourite picture

The book’s highlights include:

A sky maze between colourful hot air balloons.

A maze made of railway tracks.

A haunted house, complete with resident vampire.

A chase across a crowded city.

Pierre the Maze Detective is one of the finest children’s books I have seen in some time. It’s engaging and entertaining, with so much going on for children to discover. I think it would suit a child over 7. My 10 year old loved it. Children younger than that will enjoy looking at the pictures, but their attention spans might not be up to the concentration levels required.

With Christmas coming this book makes for an excellent present. I’ve already brought two more copies and will be looking for excuses to buy extras. A brilliantly executed children’s book and a book you can literally get lost in…

Many thanks to the team at Laurence King Publishing (producers of some of the most beautiful children’s books around) for sending me a copy of this book

 

We’re all aliens now – ‘The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet’ by Becky Chambers

The-Long-Way-To-A-Small-Angry-Planet-616x947Every now and then a novel comes along that changes what you think stories can do. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is just such a book. On one level its very ho-hum ordinary. It’s about a group of spacefarers travelling in a spaceship to their destination. Stuff happens, perhaps people die, perhaps they don’t. There’s aliens, technology and new planets. It’s a small scale Star Trek with less clunky scenery. But that’s just one level. Not since reading Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, have I read a book that made me think so deeply about humanity, prejudice and the nature of acceptance.

…Small Angry Planet is about a ‘tunnelling’ vessel and its crew. Tunnelling, in Becky Chambers’ universe, is punching through the fabric of reality in order to build wormholes that facilitate travel across vast distances of Space. The crew of the Wayfarer are damn good at what they do, but as a small outfit, they’re restricted to minor jobs. The authorities who hand out the boring contracts (actually very exciting, ripping through time and space, and all that), have let it be known that if Captain Ashby Santoso had a more professional outlook, larger, more lucrative jobs could be sent in the Wayfarer’s direction.

This is how Rosemary Harper comes on board. She has been hired as a clerk. Somebody to ensure that all the paperwork is up to date and filed on time. So…the basis of the story is, a young woman takes a job in the back office of a small company that has ambitions to expand. Exciting hey? Well not so much, but the story Chambers delivers is mind-blowingly excellent.

From the off Rosemary has a secret, but what is it? The Wayfarer’s new mission is to a far flung sector of the known universe where an up-until-now hostile race of aliens have sued for peace and been invited to join the Galactic Commons. The GC is a federation of aliens and races that all pull in roughly the same direction to ensure harmony across space. The UN writ large. Humans, we learn a fairly new members of the GC; primitive and rather stupid ones at that. Our propensity to settle problems using violence has not gone unnoticed. Humans themselves are spilt into broad categories, including Martian’s, those who escaped the Apocalypse on earth by going to Mars, and Exodan’s, those who travelled into space hoping to find salvation amongst the stars.

The rest of the universe is made up with just about every other type of life form Becky Chambers was able to imagine. Which she does brilliantly. The races felt real, not just their physical appearance but their social structures, their habits, their interactions, their desires. They are wonderfully rendered sentient creatures, alien yet touchingly, for want a better word, human. There are several different species on board the Wayfarer, as well as three humans and a sentient (also incredibly important) AI.

The relationships between the crew are what makes this novel so special. To be honest, they could have just been taking a camper van trip somewhere remote, before spending a few days on the beach and coming home again. I could read Chambers’ dialogue and character relationships all day long. It’s impossible to pick a favourite character, they are all so good; so real.

Chambers uses her wide and varied cast of characters to poke at what exactly it is that constitutes humanity. How does compassion work? What is prejudice? I think I’m a pretty accepting guy, but reading Chambers novel, I realised I had prejudices that were so deeply hidden, I wasn’t really aware they existed. …Small Angry Planet explores the idea that we’re all different in any number of ways, but there is nearly always some common ground on which to build.

The novel builds slowly to a gripping finale, about which I shall say little, lest I ruin its emotional impact. Whilst the book is beautiful and complete, I finished it desperate for more. Closing the covers felt like I was shutting the door on old friends. With its ensemble cast and lens-on-life motif The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet would make a wonderful television series. I light-heartedly compared it to Star Trek, but a series based on this wonderful novel would be a more than worthy successor. This is storytelling of the highest order and without a shadow of doubt my best read of 2015 so far.

Ok, I’ll stop gushing now.

Except to say the cover is absolutely beautiful too.

Many Thanks for the team at Bookbridgr and Hodderscape for sending me a copy of this book.    

‘The Hive Construct’ by Alexander Maskill

hiveMy 2015 is starting to simmer nicely now. After a lucklustre first half, I’ve started to find some books that I am really enjoying. Alexander Maskill’s debut novel, The Hive Construct, continued the trend, by keeping me entertained throughout.

The Hive Construct dropped through my letterbox unannounced but I knew immediately it was a book I wanted to make time for. The premise looked interesting and it won the Terry Pratchett Prize for a first novel. Maskill is a graduate of Leicester University, as am I, and despite a twenty year difference in our graduating years, this lent me an extra affinity for the novel and its author. Maskill wrote The Hive Construct whilst studying for a computer science degree, which tells us he’s both dedicated and talented. The central spine of the novel owes much to his academic pursuits. Its integral components stem from speculation about the evolution of computers.

The Hive Construct is set in the nearish future, though the world is a very different place. Set into a crater in the middle of the Sahara desert is the city of New Cairo. It’s a technological melting pot, filled with just about every cultural reference you can imagine. It is something like a future Constantinople.

Like all cities New Cairo has its haves and have-nots, with the former ruling over the latter. Political unrest is an everyday feature of life in the city, but things have taken an ugly turn. The people of New Cairo have been struck by plague. The mysterious “Soucouyant” virus is causing deaths all across the city, but it is the poor who are worst affected. With tensions bubbling, the city is closed to prevent the escape of the virus into the wider world. Now a sealed system, New Cairo is a pressure cooker waiting to explode.

Enter Zala Ulora. activist, hacker and wanted for multiple murder. She steals into the city to investigate the virus after it killed her friend. In Maskill’s world people have hardware implanted inside them to aid biological processes. Nearly everybody is enhanced in some way. The virus is attacking these enhancements, but is it a biological pathogen or something more synthetic, like rogue code? Zala’s investigations put her in the crossfire between government forces and the anti-government activists who vie for equality.

The novel is neatly split into techno-thriller and political-thriller. Maskill’s New Cairo is well-drawn and highly evocative. It feels very real, and not too far-fetched an extrapolation of what the future might hold. Perhaps not surprising considering his background but Maskill’s vision of how technology might advance feels entirely credible, giving the novel great weight. The politics of the novel are simple but no less powerful for being so. The unwashed masses vs the ivory towered elite is a centuries old tale, and one that has rarely tired in the telling. The pace of the novel is good, and whilst the denouement won’t take your breath away, the journey there will certainly have you gasping. The cast of characters is strong, with likeable and less-likeable people on both sides of the argument. There are some great set-pieces, and with exciting but realistic action; Maskill has thought out his technology well.

The Hive Construct is a very accomplished debut from and author apparently with ideas to burn. Enjoy from first page to last this book is well worth a look.

Manny thanks to the team at Del Rey for sending me a copy of the book.