Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Review of The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Ken Liu’s first published story appeared in 2002, and over the next eight years only five additional stories appeared.  A fire lit beneath him after, however, since 2010 Liu has been a machine.  An astonishing eighty pieces of fiction published in the five intervening years, the only thing more amazing is that none of these works was a novel.  But finally in 2015 Liu has emerged in long form.  A major switch in terms of style, The Grace of Kings, book one in the Dandelion Dynasty series (trilogy?), is perhaps the least and most expected story that could have emerged.

A sense of humanism grounding the storm of short fiction Liu has produced to date, The Grace of Kings is likewise rooted in history, society, culture, and the interaction among them.  Looking at cycles of power, the effects of war on a large, multi-ethnic archipelago, and the choices the people at the top face as time moves forever forward, the novel is, however, a significantly more in depth examination of these ideas than anything Liu has produced to date—a 650 page examination, in fact.

The Grace of Kings is thus an excellent counter to the gush of grimdark currently on the market.  Epic fantasy in the classic, Luo Gunagzhong sense with steampunk tendrils, any discussion of The Grace of Kings needs to involve the canonical Chinese novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  Max Gladstone goes into more detail in his blog than I will here about the foundational qualities of the Chinese classic, but suffice to Liu has fully utilized its crypto-historic mode, epic sweep, geo-political complexity, military strategizing, narrative voice, plot pacing, breadth of time, and main premise to create a story, or at least the beginning of a story, about an empire fragmenting in the wake of the death of its emperor, and what becomes of the myriad players in the game, after.  The similarities cannot be emphasized enough.*

But most importantly, Liu also looks beyond the horizons of the Chinese classic.  Where Three Kingdoms purports “a kingdom divided must unite, and a kingdom united must divide,” Liu attempts to transcend the inherent impasse via post-modern strategy: to take a broader view to the subject populace, that it is more than just the egos commanding armies or making right with their sword.

Book One of a series, The Grace of Kings is a stage setting; a representation of something similar to Three Kingdoms yet something added.  Myriad side stories conflate to the main narrative, but the overall focus is on two friends, Mata Zyndu and Kuni Garu, and their dealings with power.  The former the scion of a noble and the latter a commoner, they each take a hand in trying to overthrow the government in the wake of Emperor Mapidere’s death.  Side by side the two fight until a deciding moment forces them apart, making enemies of friends.  But the split in the relationship is just one phase.  Liu using the latter third of the novel to hint at things to come (and to fully portray the futility of cycles of violence), the main storyline comes to a satisfactory conclusion yet its obvious much more remains thematically to be said.  A Three Kingdoms foundation is built, but perhaps the grander statement is yet to come.

In his blog post on sf signal, Liu writes the following about the setting for The Grace of Kings:

“I decided to create a new fantasy land that resembles continental China as little as possible, with a new mythology, pantheon, and set of languages, cultures, and peoples, but whose social and philosophical context clearly draw inspiration from Chinese and East Asian history. This was designed to estrange the story from its source as well as from the colonial gaze so that it could be perceived from a fresh perspective.”

I oscillate on the success of this intention.  On one hand were Liu to have used Chinese everything, certainly there may have been accusations of imitation or lack of imagination.  The narrative style so similar to Chinese historical fiction, not to mention the preconceptions Liu mentions the average Westerner has regarding China, his larger agenda may have indeed been perceived as ineffective.  That being said, a huge portion of the narrative is Chinese.  The “logogram” character writing, chrysanthemums, chopsticks, torture until confession, teahouses, poem recitation, drinking wine from bowls, casting yarrow sticks (disguised as casting pebbles), the hand gestures, farewell statements (“It seems that good friends are always parting too quickly.”), food (steamed pork buns, bamboo shoots, sorghum, etc, etc.), the terracotta warrior mausoleum, Zhuge Liang (in female form), the great philosopher promoting filial piety (Kon Fiji), despots (of which there are more than a few in Chinese history to draw comparison), water clocks, gods and spirits appearing in the form of beggars, the importance of calligraphy—on and on goes the list of elements from Chinese culture and history directly and indirectly transposed into the novel.  It’s so much, in fact, that I’m not sure the blonde haired-blue eyed peoples, secondary world, and non-Chinese naming are able to overcome it.  I couldn’t stop myself picturing Chinese people running around given how much of their backdrop is Chinese, and was slightly jarred when their non-Chinese physiognomy was described. 

But forced to a side, the diversity of The Grace of Kings is enough to make it singular.  Liu is certainly attempting something more than cultural lionizing, and the main aesthetic which makes a difference is the fantastical plot devices. From airships to massive narwhals (like sandworms from Dune but in water), meddling gods to magical writing, Liu layers elements that do not detract from the realism of the agenda while adding a spot of color to liven what could have been dull, crypto-historical narration.  I was torn on the gods: on one hand they are not as meddling as Liu perhaps would have them be, while on the other they do a wonderful job of making the text epic—of creating that proper distance from our reality to the reality of the story, and therefore also a mirror to our reality, something abstract yet distinct and relatable.

In the end, The Grace of Kings is a difficult novel to talk about with certainty as it is the first in a series.  One may conclude, however, that Liu has his sights sets very high if tackling the Three Kingdoms quandary is on the list.  I can say that Liu nails the voice of The Romance of Three Kingdoms (it’s akin to the voice of the street-corner historian rather than the a.g.o.n.i.z.i.n.g.l.y sloooow narratives of authors like Robert Jordan or Brandon Sanderson), has created a massive game board and list of players, and is trying to cover more than the average epic fantasy themes of honor, loyalty, etc.  Offering material with more integrity than George R.R. Martin and his clones, the novel is better acquainted with works such as Daniel Abraham’s Long Price quartet and Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan (for the empathetic presentation of friends who become enemies), as well as David Anthony Durham’s Acacia and Harry Harrison’s Eden trilogies for the usage of epic fantasy to upend many of its common assumptions regarding power and violence.  All this puts me at a loss regarding the Saladin Ahmed cover quote. I understand the parallel to non-Anglo culture being used in an “Anglo” fantasy story, but Ahmed’s creation is considerably lighter thematically than Liu’s, not to mention the mode of writing is significantly different, and thus has a strong chance of disappointing readers who don’t read reviews first…

*For those interested, see the following comparison for just how similar the narrative voice of The Romance of Three Kingdoms and The Grace of Kings is:

The Romance of Three Kingdoms:

    When Guan Ping heard that Xu Huang was marching toward him, he went to meet the enemy with his own unit.  The two armies faced and Guan Ping rode forth.  After three clashes with Xu Huang, Guan Ping was victorious and Xu Huang fled.  The second lieutenant commander Lu Jian, took the field; but he too fled in defeat after five or six clashes.  Guan Ping gave chase some twenty li, dealing bloody slaughter as he rode.  A report of fire in his city brought him up short.  Realizing he had fallen into a trap, Guan Ping wheeled around and went back to save Yan. But a force of well-deployed troops confronted him; at their head was Xu Huang.  Poised on his horse, banners flying above him, he called out, “Guan Ping, worthy nephew.  Have you no fear of death?  The southerners hold your Jingzhou now, yet you refuse to behave yourself here!”
    In great anger Ping gave rein, wheeling his horse and…**

**Excerpt taken from the Beijing Foreign Languages Press edition of Three Kingdoms, page 1356-1357 (yes, 1356-1357), translated by Moss Roberts.

The Grace of Kings:

    Mata Zyndu’s surprise attack from the sky was a complete success. The Cocru soldiers quickly overwhelmed the small garrisons stationed at the city doors and turned the walls of Zudi against the Dasu army.
    Since the gates were sealed, the army of fifty thousand outside could only mill around the city’s walls helplessly as Mata’s men set fire throughout the city and searched for Kuni. Only a few dozen Dasu men managed to make their way back into the city using battle kites—among them Mün Çakri and Than Carucono, who could not bear the thought of abandoning their lord. But this was like trying to put out a fire using teacups, and the Dasu army soon gave up.
    Captain Dosa, Mün Çakri, Rin Coda, and Than Carucono rushed into the mayor’s house, where Kuni and his family were staying, with the bad news.


  1. Grace of Kings wasn't even on my radar until I chanced upon it recently. It instantly connected with me. Maybe it's the "wuxia" theme, something I've always liked. Anyway, great review! It reaffirms why I am liking this book so far, 1/3 in.

  2. This too, was very good. Historical romance with a contemporary feel to it. I'm signing up for Walls of Storm.