Fantasy is one of my favorite genres, I love diving into a new world with different races, languages and destinations. I view fantasy stories as an escape from reality and I enjoy the breaks. I picked up The Buried Giant by Kazu Ishiguro as an impulse buy during a trip to Barnes and Noble. The cover was so pretty I couldn’t help but pick it up and the synopsis caught my interest talking about Briton after the fall of Camelot and the adventure of an elderly Briton couple going to find their lost son and happening upon varies companions along the way.
I have to warn you, I was slightly disappointed in this story. So while I’m describing it if I seem a little sad, it’s because I was while reading this. The story starts with the elderly couple Axl and Beatrice. First off, kudos to Mr. Ishiguro on the names in this story, they fit the characters well and added something to the story. Anyway, Axl and Beatrice live in this weird post apocalyptic-style community where they all live like mole people. Their community is in the side of the mountain or a hill or something to that effect and there’s a bunch of long hallways with dozens of small rooms leading to a giant room in the middle with a forever burning bon fire. That is the best I can explain it, I’m sorry if it confused you too. Most of the story is seen kind of through Axl’s point of view even though it’s third person, you really only read about what Axl is thinking.
Axl is sitting outside the compound thinking about how people are forgetting things. He thinks about how a young girl went missing once and within a matter of hours people seemed to kinda almost forget that this kid was gone. Yes, it confused me. Yes I reread this part like three times. Yes I did wonder what he was on. So Axl thinks about this big decision he has decided on but doesn’t really tell the reader what it is. This will become a common theme throughout the story so bear with me. Axl goes into his small cave like room he shares with his wife Beatrice and thinks about how awesome it is that they own a door because not everyone has a door but because their room is closer to the outside and it’s cold out there they get a door. That was a page long. Axl and Beatrice begin their day and eventually Axl explains how he wants to go find their son that they think they have and they think they know where his village is but they aren’t sure. They don’t know. Again I’m confused. Beatrice seems surprised because apparently Axl had some problem with going and finding their son in the past, but they can’t remember what the reason is either. I’m still confused. Also there is this thing about having their candle taken away from them because they’re old and Beatrice is super upset about it and they can’t remember the exact events that led to them getting their candle taken away and it is never fully explained. Moving on.
Axl and Beatrice make their way through the wilderness, heading in the direction they think their son lives in. Oh, and before I forget, I have distinct looks for these characters in my head that I will now share with you. I think Beatrice looks like an older Marion Cotillard (from Public Enemy) and Axl looks like Amphitryon the guy who raises Hercules in the Disney movie, give or take. So, anyways, here go Marion and Amphitryon across dark ages era Briton when they come across an abandoned ruin left by the Roman invaders. They meet a freaky old lady and a boatman. The lady explains that the boatmen tricked her into leaving her husband, that when they came upon a boatman that said he would transport them to this island of fog, where many people live but they never see each other. There is a rumor that couples who bear a strong bond can go to the island and live out their days together. The boatman will tell you there is only room for one person to row across the river at a time and he will bring the husband first and come back for the wife. When he comes back he will ask the wife a series of questions about her life together with her husband and if she passes the test she can go with him. Apparently creepy old lady did not pass the test and she follows the boatman around and creeps him and all of us out further by killing a white rabbit and like showing him. Totally normal stuff happening.
Eventually Beatrice leads Axl to a Saxon village that she has been before, she wants to go see a medicience woman for a small pain that she has that she claims is not a big deal but she wants to see someone about it. While there they witness a strange gathering of people and find out that a local boy has been kidnapped by a monster that is like a mutated ogre and they don’t know what to do. Then a warrior comes into the crowd and says he is going to go and get the boy and destroy the monsters. Beatrice tells Axl there is a monk in the mountains she should go see that could potentially heal her small pain so they decide to make a pit stop there on the way to their son’s village. However while walking to the local inn they are stopped by guards who are on patrol and are scared of anyone or anything different at this point. Then a small man comes in and tells them to go back to their posts, don’t they remember why they were guarding the wall around the village? Apparently not. The forgetting finally gets addressed when Beatrice talks about this “mist” that exists in the world, that seems to make people forget stuff. Axl and the small man that rescued them acknowledge that they feel the same way she does and they come up with maybe God has forgotten things so how are they supposed to remember stuff? Ok so after all this we the people reading the story finally begin to understand that there is actually something preventing our characters from remembering things and explains most of the confusion from the first chunk of the book. Great!
That night our couple awaken to a large crowd outside the hut they are staying in. Apparently the boy has been rescued and the warrior returned victorious, but something seems wrong. Everyone seems to want to hurt the boy and no one can explain why. Beatrice decides it’s too dangerous for her and Axl to remain, being outsiders, and they go back to bed. The next day their small friend explains that the boy came back to the village with a small mark on his chest that looks like it could be a bite and of course everyone knows that when an ogre bites you, you will eventually become an ogre yourself. So the small guy has asked the warrior, who’s name we learn is Wistan, to take the small boy, who’s name is Edwin, with him on his journey and drop him off at a safer village far away from the one they are at now. Axl and Beatrice don’t think much of this until Wistan runs into them and asks Axl if he would be willing to take Edwin and promises to go with them through the mountain, for he is on an important mission from his King and must get to it. We learn that Wistan is from a place called the “Fenlands” and although he is a Saxon was raised and trained with Britons, he also seems to recognize Axl and even tells him he reminds him of someone from his childhood. Axl and Beatrice eventually agrees and together with Wistan and Edwin the four of them venture forward.
I need to touch briefly on Edwin, he is strange and not in a good way. He hears his mother’s voice constantly and she is always asking him to come save her. Spoiler, his mom was taken years ago and hasn’t been seen since. Also he describes a strange creature that did actually bite him while he was captured. Anyway the four adventurers go forth through the mountains. Eventually they come across soldiers who stop them at a bridge and they somehow convince them that Winston is a simple minded farmer so they allow them to pass. Then they meet a rather interesting character in Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur’s who has been given the task to kill the dragon Querig, a she-dragon that has terrorized the lands since the time of Arthur. He and his old battle horse Horace have been traveling the country side for decades trying to find and destroy Querig, and he is something of a laughing stock since he hasn’t actually done it having decades to accomplish his task. So the guard that first let them pass catches up with them and calls them on their bluff and challenges Wistan to a fight. We find out that this guard is a henchman of some lord guy who has a vendetta against Wistan and has been waiting for him to show up so he can kill him but no one says why. Wistan ends up killing the guard and the four continue on to the monastery.
The monastery is actually an old Saxon fortress and from the get go you know something is up. When they do eventully get to see Brother Jonas, the monk they came to see a lot is revealed. Like the fact that Querig is the reason for the “mist” that makes people forget, her breathe apparently is magical and does it. Also Axl by this point is having disntant memories of battlefields and villages being torn apart and doesn’t know what it means. They all decide it’s time to vanquish Querig and end the mist so people can remember their lives. It’s also around the time that Beatrice starts talking about how one night Axl left her all alone and her son also left, it even suggests that he left her for another woman at some point, but they don’t get too much into it. Again in the middle of the night all hell breaks loose. Wistan is attacked in the courtyard by some lord guys henchmen and a monk leads Axl, Beatrice and Edwin to what he calls an old escape route underground. Wrong, it’s actually where all of these monks send people they want to get rid of to be sacrificed by this weird dog creature. They end up meeting Sir Gawain in the tunnel, Brother Jonas’ assistant told him of the monks plan and he came to rescue the three of them, leaving Wistan to his own devices. Really weird strange stuff happens and eventually the three of them band together to kill the strange dog creature. Sir Gawain keeps going on these random tangents about how none of them were there during Arthur’s reign so how could they understand his decisions? Axl eventually catches on that Sir Gawain knows him and he must have been a peer of his at some point but Sir Gawain won’t divulge any information.
Edwin leaves the group and goes back for Wistan, there is this fantastic bit about how Wistan escapes and I will leave that for the people who will go read the book, it’s a great read. Eventually Edwin and Wistan are reunited and Wistan explains that he and some lord guy basically went to training school together, some lord guy made Wistan’s life hell and Wistan felt forced to run away from the training school and now hates all Britons. Wonderful. Beatrice and Axl have a few weird side adventures and eventually end up with a goat that has been poisoned with some herb to be fed to Querig so that she will die when she eats it. They meet up again with Sir Gawain on their way to the feeding place and he attempts to detour them, claiming he has it under control. Wistan and Edwin catch up with the other three and then all is revealed. Sir Gawain is not there to destroy Querig, but protect her. Apparently in order to scotch any thoughts of revenge Arthut ordered Merlin the Wizard to cast a spell on Querig’s breathe so that everyone would forget the horrors of the war they had been fighting and all the innocent people that had been killed. Axl was a knight of Arthur and left because he was against the violence Arthur used to win the war. Wistan was sent by his Saxon king to destroy Querig so that people would remember the cause of their hate for Britons and rise up for war. Finally Edwin was bitten by a dragon and the voice of his mother is actually the voice of Querig and he is being pulled towards her so Wistan used him to find her. In the end Wistan has to kill Sir Gawain and he does kill Querig and everyone remembers.
The story ends with Beatrice and Axl remembering that their son is actually dead and is buried on the island of mist mentioned before by the creepy lady. They also come across a boatman who tells them he will take both of them across if they pass the test. They do, because they are able to remember their life together. They talk about the hard times and how Axl and their son fought and that’s why he left and how he died and they feel responsible. However at the last second the boatman says that the weather is too rocky and he can only take Beatrice. Axl understandably gets really upset and protests but Beatrice tells him not to worry and Axl lets her go. The last image we are given is Axl walking past the boatman on the shore and going off on another adventure…
Ok, so basically I really wanted to love this book and I didn’t. I thought it was a great premise but the story was a little off. Every time I thought they were getting somewhere they would miss the mark just by a few inches. They never fully explain things, like the memories of Axl leaving Beatrice for a night or why exactly their son left and how he died. You are also left with this feeling of impending doom because now that everyone remembers everything war is inevitable. You are left feeling really empty almost, like you know that feelings of residual anger is just going to sweep across the land leaving destruction and death in it’s wake. It’s depressing. Although the author created this full world he essentially destroys it by killing the dragon. Oops?
However, I have taken a lot from this book that I think will stick with me. This story really touches on a lot of deeper themes without coming right out and talking about it. Axl and Beatrice are apprehensive about lifting the mist because they know it’s going to uncover some painful memories and it could potentially ruin the relationship they have. On the other hand what is life with someone worth if you can’t remember it all? It touches on the fact that relationships are hard work and sometimes it might be easier to forget things, but that’s not how life goes. Wistan’s and his kings hatred for Britons is an example of human nature and revenge. They want to exact revenge on the people that killed their own, this is a pattern that has existed since the dawn of time and it always ruins everything, hence the whole reason why Arthur asked Merlin to cast the spell. Sir Gawain is this aging knight who has dedicated his life to protect a dark secret. He gives up his entire life for it, he gives up any chance for love or a family and during a couple of chapters told through his eyes he asks himself a few times if he would have been happier if he had lived a different life. He is talking about choosing the self over duty and finding a way to live after war. The final theme I will talk about I think is really profound, it’s about the boatmen. The boatmen isn’t taking people to a mysterious island, he’s taking them to death. The boatman is a representation for the undertaker and the reason why only one half of a couple goes at a time is because the person is actually going to die and leave their partner. I am guessing Beatrice’s small pain that she had was some kind of terminal illness and when she finally knew her fate she was able to convey to Axl what was happening and Axl accepted the loss of his wife, leaving only with the newly returned memories of their life together. The creepy old woman and the widows that wander the land complaining about the boatmen, are war widows. They represent the widows who have to figure out how to live after their husbands are taken by war. It’s not their decision or what they want and even though they want to go with him, they have no choice but to watch him disappear into the mist.
The Buried Giant is a strange book. On one hand I did not exactly enjoy it but on the other hand I really did take something from it in the end. The story has stuck with me for a few days and it took me a while to figure out how I felt about this book. I think it is a good, maybe even a great book because it made me feel something. Even if it was confusion sometimes at least I was feeling it. If you are a fan of fantasy books, you might want to pick this book up. It’s worth going through at least for the message it leaves behind.
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