GUEST POST: Amelia Smith on Kazuo Ishiguro’s THE BURIED GIANT

Today, SPFBO author Amelia Smith is dropping by to give us her thoughts of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Buried Giant.


I used to think that fantasy was a genre, and that I knew what it was about. Then I tried to write a nice, quick, pulpy fantasy novel, and discovered that I had no idea what I was doing. That was almost a decade and a half ago, and the boundaries of the genre haven’t gotten any less blurry for me.

I had read fantasy novels, dozens of them. My favorites included C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which I’d read multiple times in elementary school, and The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley (which I’ve since tried to re-read, and didn’t like it as much as I used to). What I was aiming for was a mix of imagination and allegory, but apparently that wasn’t enough. I needed a plot and characters, too, so I got those. I drafted, revised, rewrote, and revised again. Then I looked around, only to discover that this so-called genre wasn’t what I thought it was at all.

Within speculative fiction, there are dozens of sub-genres with non-overlapping or barely overlapping readerships, from shifter romance to literary fairy tales to hard sci-fi to “Tolkien knock-offs.” My husband and I both read speculative fiction, but he reads mostly Lovecraftian short stories while I lean towards literary fantasy novels. I also read literary fiction, and sometimes the literary stuff is as fantastical as the fantasy. I mean, why isn’t Salman Rushdie’s work shelved in the fantasy section? Why isn’t Jo Walton in general fiction?

The line between literary fiction and fantasy is blurry, but sometimes an author tries to cross over (sort of) and trips up horribly. I’d heard good things about Kazuo Ishiguro, so when the buzz got going about The Buried Giant I checked it out. It was not what I would call a masterpiece. In some ways, it was like looking at my own first efforts to write fantasy, but also reminiscent of Phantastes by George MacDonald (first published in 1858) a book I fought my way way through recently because of C.S. Lewis’s gushing introduction to it. Phantastes was rich with allegory and description, not so strong on the forward drive of plot. The Buried Giant had a slow, foggy atmosphere which hearkened back to that Ur text of 20th century fantasy.

Ursula LeGuin criticized Ishiguro for his reluctance to embrace the fantasy genre, which led to the highest profile discussion I’ve seen of the literary/fantasy genre divide. People got a bit worked up about it. I got a bit worked up about it. I saw fantasy – the Tolkien knock-off kind – shelved with general fiction at another local library. I asked why. No one seemed to know. As it happened, one of the local library book clubs was reading The Buried Giant, so I went along to the meeting. The members of the group were mostly women well over the age of 70, and on the whole they didn’t love the book, but their big objections had very little to do with the world-building or genre-bending. Instead, they wanted to know was what the author was trying to do, what the message of the book was.

They seemed to be looking for allegory, one of the reasons I got into writing fantasy in the first place. I’ve been thinking more about plot and such lately, but that drive for allegory is still part of the process. It was a prominent characteristic of much of the fantasy I read early on, and I sometimes still see it, though more often in those books which land on the literary/general fiction shelves despite their fantastical elements. There’s probably more action and adventure on the genre bestseller lists.

Sometimes, I’d like to see all the segregated genres lumped back into general fiction at my local library. People who “don’t read fantasy” are missing a lot of good stuff, stories which they would probably enjoy. Meanwhile, the genre shelves themselves contain a huge variety, and I often find myself jumping up and down explaining to people that no, it’s not all sexist Tolkien knock-offs any more. I don’t think it ever was.

authorphoto400sq-300x300Amelia Smith writes articles about Martha’s Vineyard, books about dragons, and blog posts about nothing in particular. To learn more about her, visit www.ameliasmith.net. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

SPFBO Review: Scrapplings, by Amelia Smith

Buy from Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble
Rating – 7.5/10
Author’s website
Publication date – December 1, 2014

Summary: Everyone in the Tiadun Keep is dragon-blind, even the priestesses. Darna pretends she can’t see the realm’s guardian dragon either – she already gets teased enough for her limp. She flees to the legendary city of Anamat, where some still see the dragons, or so the minstrels say.

On her journey, she meets Myril, an older scrappling girl with an eerie sense of hearing and frequent premonitions. Together, they hope to find their places in the city.

Then there’s Iola, who actually wants to be a priestess. She’s so dragon-struck that she can’t see through the temples’ thin veils of piety, can’t see the priestesses’ greed as they fleece their sweaty devotees.

Thorat is Iola’s champion. He sees dragons as much as the girls do, but unlike them he’s very good at blending in with normal boys. Darna wishes he would notice her sometimes, too.

In the city, Darna strikes out on her own to find secret passageways. She scavenges for valuable scraps to sell. If she can’t buy a guild apprenticeship by Midsummer, she’ll be exiled from the city, unless the priestesses take her, which is the last thing she wants. So when she’s offered a sack full of gold beads for a small bit of thieving, she takes her chances… and ends up angering the dragon herself.

Thoughts: I had a good feeling about this book when I first read the synopsis, months back when it arrived as part of my SPFBO package. It sounded like it had a lot of potential to be really enjoyable, and while the world at first seemed a bit generic, well, it’s not like I haven’t read and enjoyed books set in generic fantasy worlds in the past.

As it turns out, the worldbuilding was actually one of the things I liked best about Scrapplings. On the surface it looks a bit generic. There are dragons. A country with ties to them, and a fear of foreigners who have less to do with dragons. Urchins in the street, priestesses in their temples. Nothing outstanding. But those are just the bare bones, the scaffolding that holds it all together and supports the artistry on the surface. Dragons are creatures of myth, who both made the world and are the world, and they’re more spiritual beings than corporeal ones. Priestesses devoted to dragons are akin to what we’d think of as temple prostitutes, engaging in sexual acts as a spiritual thing, representing a communion with dragons. Or that’s the theory, anyway, since many priestesses seem to have more belief in the sex than they do in dragons, or what their positions are supposed to represent. Dragons are invisible to most, and those who see them often go on to become priestesses, rather as a default position.

Darna is a girl who can see dragons but has no interest in becoming a priestess. She also seems to be the illegitimate child of a prince and a priestess, though for most of her life she’s been treated as a servant, and stigma against her and her disability hold her back from following her dreams. Iola was cast out from her family, dreams of traveling to the city of Anamat to become a priestess, and can’t understand why Darna would want anything else. Thorat is a fairly generic boy who travelled with Iola on her journey, who sees dragons far less than the rest of them but still sees them. And then there’s Myril, who seems even less distinguished than Thorat, but who can also see dragons and is on her way to Anamat too.

The main characters are a bit peculiar in that they have an interesting dynamic while largely remaining pretty uninteresting people. They remained acquaintances rather than friends, each following their own path as the story went along but always gravitating back to each other in the end. So that was an interesting twist on what you usually see in YA-oriented stuff; most often people thrown together by circumstance either become friends or enemies, but rarely do they keep a similar dynamic to when they started. Most of the characters, though, weren’t particularly interesting. Darna most certainly was, since she showed initiative and ended up in the thick of conflict and larger plots and the real meat of the story. Iola was, to a degree, since she seemed most connected to the dragons. But Thorat seemed to be there to provide a couple of perspective breaks and participate in a scheme toward the end of the book, and Myril didn’t really contribute to the story at all. Elna, a secondary character who shows up halfway through the book and whose purpose is really just to be another member of Darna’s small street gang, got more development than Myril did.

Stylistically, I rather enjoyed Scrapplings. The beginning was a bit awkward, and I thought the first chapter could have been cut entirely without anything really being missed from the story (at least not that couldn’t have been filled in by flashbacks similar to what other characters got as their introduction, or dropping explanations throughout the rest of the text), but for the most part, it was pretty good. Scrapplings is one of those books where surprisingly little happens, but you don’t realise it until you’ve already gotten invested in the world and the story. I’m a bit odd in that sometimes I really like reading about the day-to-day lives of some characters, so the amount of window-dressing in this story didn’t bother me as much as it might bother those who prefer a very tight story with no words wasted. But the worldbuilding and the writing style were good, even if the pacing wasn’t fantastic.

So it’s a book not without its issues, but it was still very enjoyable, and it interested me enough to make me curious about reading future installments of the series. It’s a light read, not heavy on action or tension, and in some ways it feels more like the first half of a book rather than a full book itself, but that doesn’t by default make it a bad book. (Nor do I count that as a flaw that only arose due to the book’s self-published status, given that I recently read a traditionally-published novel by a big-name author that made me think the exact same thing.)  Categorically, I think I might put this book somewhere between mid-grade and YA, given the combination of the ages of the characters, aspects of the writing style, and some of the novel’s content, and while mid-grade isn’t exactly my speciality, I do know what I like, and I liked Scrapplings. Once you get past the awkward beginning, the story really starts to shine through, and I can see a fair bit of potential for the rest of this series.