Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, First Semifinal :: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro vs. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Our first semifinal match in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books features The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro going against The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. In the semifinal round, the books are judged after reading 100 pages. The winner, the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 100 pages, will advance to the championship round.

The Buried Giant:  Alfred A. Knopf, 317 pages, March 2015, jacket design by Peter Mendelsund. Kazuo Ishiguro won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Remains of the Day.

The Buried Giant overpowered Firesoul by Gary Kloster in the first round, then The Buried Giant overwhelmed The Banished of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler in the second round to reach the semifinals.

Set in ancient England, the main characters of The Buried Giant are an old couple named Axl and Beatrice. Axl and Beatrice have left their farming community and set off across Saxon lands in search of their son, frustrated that they don't remember him very well. A mist has settled across this land that has apparently deprived everyone of many of their memories. Axl and Beatrice travel through a Saxon village, where a young boy was recently carried off by ogres but saved by a passing Briton warrior.

The Grace of Kings:   Saga, April 2015, 618 pages, cover art by Sam Weber. The Grace of Kings is Book One of the Dandelion Dynasty series. Ken Liu is a two-time Hugo Award winner for his short fiction, as well as accounting for two more Hugos by translating Chinese SF. The Grace of Kings is his first novel.

The Grace of Kings overwhelmed Infinity Lost by S. Harrison in the first round, then The Grace of Kings conquered Fortune’s Blight by Evie Manieri in the second round to reach the semifinals.

The Grace of Kings is set on the Islands of Dara, an archipelago with a culture similar to ancient China. The opening 50 pages introduced us to our main characters Kuni Garu, a clever but mischievous young man hoping to win the hand of his mayor's daughter, and Mata Zyndu, a huge brooding young fellow seeking revenge against the emperor for the deaths of most of his family. In the second 50 pages, the emperor meets his gods, figuratively and literally, and the resulting power vacuum opens the door to rebellion. Kuni Garu is quick to join the fray.

The Battle: By the semifinals, judging the Battle of the Books gets really tough, because the books that make it this far are typically very good. Case in point, here is a battle between two fantasy novels I am greatly enjoying, by two authors I hugely admire. One is a straight historical fantasy set in ancient Britain (it feels historical so far anyway—people speak of ogres and such, but so far none has appeared onstage), while the other is a secondary world fantasy drawing heavily on Chinese history. It will be difficult to choose a winner.

Through 100 pages, The Buried Giant is elegantly written and has introduced me to an appealing historical setting, some likeable characters, and an interesting mystery: why do the main characters and everyone around them seem to be suffering from gaps in their memories?

Through 100 pages, The Grace of Kings is also nicely written and has introduced me to a fascinating world, this one not strictly historical but leaning heavily on Chinese history. The characters are similarly engaging, with interesting conflicts looming in their futures.

So what's to separate these two strong entrants? The answer is, the Battle of the Books rewards novels that add new layers to the narrative for each round. (You may be skeptical that authors are writing their novels with the Battle of the Books in mind, but they are, my friends, they are.) A memorable opening will carry the first round. Then broadening the opening out into some intriguing storylines gets you through the second round. Kazuo Ishiguro and Ken Liu both did those things.

For the third round? Give me something extra. Keep adding to the story as it unfolds, so I appreciate more after 100 pages than I did after 50 pages. Again, Ishiguro and Liu both do that, but one a bit more successfully.

In The Buried Giant, the new story element is two new traveling companions for our main characters. One is a lad driven from his home by superstitious villagers who believe he was bitten by an ogre. The other is a brave and strong warrior named Wistan, whom Axl meets at a vantage point overlooking a dense woodland:
"Yesterday I rode down that hillside," Wistan said, "and my mare with hardly any prompting set into a gallop as though for sheer joy. A strange thing, as if I were returning to scenes from an early life, though to my knowledge I've never before visited this country. Can it be I passed this way as a small boy too young to know my whereabouts, yet old enough to retain these sights? The trees and moorland here, the sky itself seem to tug at some lost memory."
One suspects this warrior is the same lost son Axl and Beatrice seek. If it turns out so, that is an awfully convenient development.

Meanwhile, the second 50-page section of The Grace of Kings does a masterful job of broadening the scope of the story. While the opening chapters focused on the development of Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu as youths, now we are starting to see the events shaping leadership of the Islands of Dara. That includes a betrayal of the Emperor Mapidéré's wishes upon his death, which leaves the empire without a strong ruler, as well as the surprising revelation that the gods have taken an active interest in Dara. Here, the bickering gods refuse the dying emperor's request to be cured of illness to continue his works to honor them:
"War has its own logic, Little Sister," said Fithowéo. "We can guide, but it cannot be controlled."

"A lesson that mortals have learned again and again—" said Rapa.

"—but it doesn't seem to take," finished Kana.

Tututika turned her gaze to the forgotten Mapidéré. "Then we should pity this man, whose work is about to be undone. Great men are always misunderstood by their own age. And great seldom means good."
By first introducing us to two different but equally sympathetic main characters and then broadening his scope, Ken Liu has pulled off the difficult trick in epic fantasy of weaving a story on a grand scale that is firmly anchored in characters the reader cares about.

As much as I love Kazuo Ishiguro's pastoral writing style in The Buried Giant, through 100 pages The Grace of Kings is giving me more to anticipate, more reasons to keep reading.

THE WINNER: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings advances to the championship round to face either Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz or The Just City by Jo Walton.

To see the whole bracket, click here.