Amazon believes that e-books are price-elastic. That is, the lower the price, the more units sell. The print list price for Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is $26.95. I noticed it was $5.99 in the Kindle version, so I purchased it on a whim. It’s basically cheaper than lunch. I can say with some confidence that if it was priced at “normal” e-book rates, which are still discounted, I probably wouldn’t have purchased it. I don’t read much fiction, and when I do I tend to shy away from material with too many mainstream plaudits because the mainstream often strikes me as banal in their preoccupations.
I stated last week I probably wouldn’t get to finishing The Buried Giant very soon. I was wrong. It’s a quick read, and I was just on an airplane, so the book is done. Overall I’d say it was worth the money. Ishiguro writes well and evocatively threads through his broader themes, while still allowing the narrative itself to have some drive to it.
The Buried Giant operates in the area between the literary allusive opacity of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Son and the sort of sincere and transparent high fantasy you see in Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. Because it is notionally set in post-Roman but pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain you might think The Buried Giant exhibits some of the historical fantasy flavor you see in works such as Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic (or quasi-scholarship about this period, such as Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Coming of the King). But it does not.
Though the Saxons and the Britons are real people who coexisted in a real time, the world is anachronistic and laced through with fantastical elements. There are dragons and ogres, but also Norsemen and knights. The latter are features of periods centuries after the late 5th century. One aspect that is difficult to not acknowledge in a book about this time period is the foreshadowing of the Saxon conquest of lowland Britain, what became England. But, I do think as a point of historical fact one should note that as late as the early 7th century Celtic British kings such as Cadwallon ap Cadfan were conquering eastern areas of England, with armies reaching the North Sea. Though the Germanization of Britain seems inevitable now, it is possible to imagine a scenario where the late 6th century marked the low point from which Britons reconquered the islands, in a manner that the Christians in Spain reconquered their peninsula. But The Buried Giant operates under the assumption of Saxon inevitability, with the Britons being portrayed faintly as if they are a feckless and complacent people, with more civilized refinement than genuine honor.
Finally, one aspect of this book that many readers of traditional fantasy will find disappointing is that its description of the world and the people within it is very understated. Ishiguro exhibits an admirable economy of prose, but at the sacrifice of a rich and deep color of character and landscape. For example, I can not tell you what the main characters looked like aside from the thinnest of generalities (e.g., two characters were aged, one was a strong warrior, etc.). Obviously this makes it difficult to conceptualize them in one’s mind’s eye, but perhaps the point was to identify with the character and their life rather than their embodiment. The fact that concrete aspects of character and landscape were put into the background probably allowed the broader themes to be more clearly obvious.
I can see why mainstream audiences might find The Buried Giant appealing, as it doesn’t push them too far. The fantastical elements are unobtrusive background furniture. But if you want real a real “Dark Age” Arthur, I highly recommend Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles.