Book Review: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

17 Apr

“A knife is not malicious merely because it is sharp, and a plot is not evil merely because it is effective. All depends on the wielder. The grace of kings is not the same as the morals governing individuals.”

My expectations were high after learning about Ken Liu’s debut novel, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Grace of Kings is both spectacular and significant, an approach to epic fantasy that combines some of the best elements of the established genre with Liu’s unique sentiments and voice. I’ve been trying to avoid reviews before writing this up, but judging from the headlines, I’m not alone in excitement and appreciation.

First in a series dubbed The Dandelion Dynasty, the novel is set in an archipelago called Dara. Following a mythological pre-history, Dara existed for generations as a divided land of seven kingdoms, each with a patron god and its own unique resources and culture. The instability of shifting alliances and waves of conflict represented the price for maintaining the independent nations until one king realized the potential peace, stability, and progress that could be achieved by uniting Dara into one standardized empire. Yet the common people still suffer, and many miss the aspects of local culture now being lost. Rumblings of unrest lead to eventual rebellion following the chaos of a difficult imperial succession. But with the empire dissolved, what will a new Dara look like, and upon whom will each god’s favor befall?

The Grace of Kings follows two leaders, Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, who emerge from the rapidly changing sociopolitical landscape of Dara. Despite their very different pasts and their polar-opposite personalities, these two men initially fight together as allies, strengths of each perfectly complementing the weakness of the other. But circumstances, the machinations of the gods, and the weighty responsibilities that come to leaders following success form a wedge in their relationship that may not be overcome.Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

The opening pages brings the universe of The Dandelion Dynasty alive with a cinematic chapter that acts as a microcosm for many of the themes and elements that dominate The Grace of Kings as a whole. Liu here uses a grandiose imperial parade to paint a vivid picture of this world and the people who inhabit it, including the key character and protagonist. He then uses a failed assassination to immediately inject the plot with some action to drive things forward. The broad theme of the old and traditional clashing with the new is highlighted primarily here, as well as the ideas that forging a society with the best of intentions may do great harm and that trying to efficiently and correctly manage an empire is far more difficult than forming it.

This first chapter also establishes the technological and supernatural realms of Dara. The would-be assassin employs a flying contraption and explosive missiles, establishing the ‘silk-punk’ aspect of Liu’s novel, a fantasy world where imaginative inventions, believable for the technological state of the society, are fashioned for uses comparable to the more modern contraptions of our reality. For the mortal characters of Dara technology, physical strength, and brain-power are the tools they have at hand, with inventions taking the place of what magic might do in other fantasy realms.

However, the supernatural or magical also exist in Dara in the form of the patron gods, characters who take a role in the plot of the novel much akin to the immortal players in classic Greek literature, as in Homer’s Iliad. Bickering among themselves for influence and power, these gods choose favorites from mortals to influence, prod, and pull towards outcomes they champion, employing magical disguise and enchanted items to so influence the mortals.

Following the evocative first chapter, the next I felt were some of the weakest of the novel (and yes this is being rather picky). Serving to expand on the exposition already transmitted to readers, this couple of chapters introduces Mata Zyndu and a greater depth of Dara’s history and culture in relation to both Mata and Kuni. The passages with Mata in particular came across as info-dump, less integrated with action and events and more a simple relation of background that the reader is going to need, including dropping a tidbit that obviously was going to be important for a ‘surprise’ twist in the plot later.

After this brief slowdown, Liu gets back on track relating the development of Kuni and setting him on the path eventually leading parallel to Mata’s goals. Kuni is an immensely likable character, a witty rogue whose heart is clearly in the right moral place. He is open to the possibilities of the world, and experiencing them all wherever events and circumstance will lead. Kuni’s first path is one of romance as he begins to court Jia Matiza.

With this plot point, Liu begins to explore relationships between the genders, and gender roles both separate and in partnership. Like our world, Dara exists with signs of gender inequality both overt and subtle. Liu paints Kuni and Jia Matiza‘s romance with a delicate honesty throughout the novel, primarily showing how well they work together and truly complement each other. But they also realize that they need others and find a way to try and make that work within a committed relationship. They have fights; they have moments of jealousy. Yet, they also try incredibly hard to heal ruptures and to recognize their own limitations or false expectations brought on by the assumptions of society.

Liu gradually expands feminist themes as the novel progresses and wonders early in the book as to whether women will only serve background roles away from action, stuck in ‘traditional’ vocations that are eventually dispelled. Liu first brings up these issues bluntly through the voice of characters who see women through the eyes of tradition alone and has others lightly suggest that maybe another way of seeing is possible — and maybe even better. Female characters take on greater roles as the novel gets into its second half, with them exerting power in one of three ways:  using perceived weaknesses to allow people to underestimate their capability at success, using their traditional, ‘limiting’ roles to influence men with those few tools that men lack, or taking up the role assumed by the society to be reserved for men and doing it better than anyone else. One gets the sense that Liu will expand further on these in the next volume, particularly in the realms of ‘court-intrigue’. The issue of gender inequality among the gods is less addressed, and I hope Liu will delve into this further in the future book(s), though what gender is in biological senses to an immortal is up for total speculation.

While both the mortal and immortal beings of The Grace of Kings are well defined, perhaps the most richly deep character in this novel is the universe itself. Liu’s world building is wondrous, with details into Dara’s history, religion, language, medicine, economics, poetry, technology, and education. Many of these items they not only exist in the backdrop, but also become of key importance for plot, such as the role of money and financing a war or finding ways to stimulate development of new technologies needed to gain a competitive edge. While there are still universe details that could be added (oh, how I wish fantasy would consider the microbial world more) Liu gives far more aspects their due than what is typical.

These details ground The Grace of Kings into a firm realism beyond what is typical for epic fantasy (even with its inclusion of immortal gods). From the fantasy I have read, I find it actually most similar to David Anthony Durham’s Acacia (though I’ve still only read the first of that series). Both feature worlds that pay careful attention to culture, history, and diversity, and each play with reader expectations that an epic conflict will go a particular way. However, I feel that Liu’s goes further in handling complex, varied themes and is more successful at finding a balance between the classic and the fresh.

With the recent Sad/Rabid Puppy Hugo Award debacle, it is nice to consider The Grace of Kings and be reminded that some of my favorite artists – the Alfred Hitchcocks or the J.K. Rowlings – produce works that elicit both giddy glee of the child-fan in me and satisfy the discerning adult. They balance two levels of escapism: one where you can just escape the bad thoughts of real life and experience some thoughtless joy of familiarity and entertainment, and another where you can spare a thought and escape from the discomforting problems of this world into an imagined universe where solutions are viably present.

That theme of balance is prevalent throughout The Grace of Kings on multiple levels beyond how well it reads for simple fun balanced with material for deeper consideration. There is the balance between family and responsibility, between pre-ordained status/destiny and initiative, between considering the ‘good of the many’ and the ‘good of the few, or the one’, between hope and cynicism, and foremost between tradition and innovation. Liu explores the heartbreak that accompanies loss of traditional, unique culture in the face of what is essentially globalization (imperialism), but also the strengths unification can bring to innovating hallmarks of civilization and advancement. In the military conflict of the novel, Liu presents characters entrenched in unwavering commitment to the traditional, but others who choose which traditions to respect and which to move on away from to reach better option for the moment. At the center of both Kuni’s internal conflict and that of Mata rests a battle between adhering to traditions, promises to family, and adapting to immediate needs that seem to demand change.

The theme of losing some traditions, intentionally or not, and keeping others is relevant of course to Liu’s Chinese heritage, but speaks equally to any human community (and I assume to other aspects of Liu’s being as well). Whether a Wiccan, German, gamer, musician, whatever, that balance between the traditional and the new will have relevance, and the universal appeal of Liu’s story makes it so much more than just ‘silk-punk’ fantasy.

Equally noteworthy to the significance of The Grace of Kings for the epic fantasy genre is Liu’s seamless transition from shorter fiction to the novel length. Liu has deservedly gathered respect from the SFF community for his short stories/novellas and for his work as a translator. But frequently those with strong talent and technique in shorter fiction find difficulty managing the novel (or vice versa). One thing Liu excels at is structure, and what he does in The Grace of Kings is form it around chapters or parts that could stand completely independently or as interlinked, successive short stories.

In other words, The Grace of Kings is one story made up of many smaller ones. The events of this first novel could have easily taken up three in another epic fantasy series. Liu compresses time very well to keep the flow, telling the essential tale of a character and then moving on. The novel is filled with secondary characters, some of which appear, go, and return, and others who flash in one brief background plot to then wink out. Within the broad story you have short stories of an uprising, of an invasion, of a character’s temptation, or the next episode between Kuni and Mata after a period of years have been glossed over.

I could keep discussing bits of this novel, such as how awesome Gin Matiza is, but I will keep Liu’s tight pacing in mind, stop, and go read other reader’s impressions. If you haven’t gotten The Grace of Kings, you really should stop waiting. I’ll be looking forward to the next volume of The Dandelion Dynasty and am glad a Liu short fiction collection will soon be out to hold us all over.

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