Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Grace of Kings - Ken Liu

Ken Liu has produced an impressive number of high quality short stories in the past few years. His stories have won him several awards and gathered a whole bunch of nominations. His first collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, is expected later in the year and I am really looking forward to getting my hands on that. Given the name he's been making for himself lately, it is no wonder that many people have been eagerly awaiting his first novel. The Grace of Kingswas released in April and is the first book in The Dandelion Dynasty series. He sold a total of three of them to Saga Press, the new Simon & Schuster SFF imprint that launched this year. The Grace of Kings is a secondary world fantasy but, as you would expect from Liu, heavily influenced by Chinese culture and history.

The Dara archipelago once housed seven kingdoms. Then a man rising up from the lowliest of the seven, conquered them all and unified them into one empire. In his search for greatness and eternal life, he neglected the needs of his people and failed to provide a secure throne for his heir. The boy unfortunate enough to take the throne is kept ignorant of what goes on in  his kingdom. As rebellion brews, he is distracted with games. Soon rebellions spring up all over the empire. Two men in particular, the great warrior Mata Zyndhu and the clever rogue Kuni Garu will shape the future of Dara in their search for justice, revenge, power and prosperity.

The Grace of Kings is an epic fantasy containing all that you might expect in one of those. The main difference with a lot of epic fantasy that is being written today, is that where most would use medieval Europe as a model, Dara is clearly inspired by China. You have your blond, blue-eyed characters but the whole novel breathes China. The food, the writing system, the political structure, the scholarship, the buildings, the symbols, it is inescapable. To be more precise, Liu was inspired by the rise of the Han dynasty. It was preceded by the brief Qin dynasty, the first imperial dynasty in China's history. Liu follows history loosely. It is not so much a retelling as a novel that takes history as a starting point. Liu's influences from Chinese history are taken from other periods as well.

One of his most obvious influences is The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a fourteenth century historical novel attributed to Luo Guanzhong. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of Chinese literature and tells the history of the demise of the Han until the reunification under the Jin dynasty. It is part history, part legend and severely romanticized and Liu seems to have used many of the same storytelling techniques in his novel. I have been told The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is about twice the size of The Lord of the Rings and has more characters than The Wheel of Time. It sounds like a fascinating but challenging read. I'm not familiar with it, which makes me wonder what someone who is more familiar with this work would make of Liu's effort.

The thing that most readers will notice right away about this novel is the manner in which Liu tells his story. The story covers about two decades and involves a lot of military campaigning. Liu is not afraid to skip the boring bits. He imparts a lot of what happens in a few brief sentences without lingering on the details, and mixes in brief bits of dialogue to keep us connected to the main characters. He zooms in on them and then retreats to show us the big picture. It is a huge contrast to some of the more recent and wildly popular epic fantasy out there. They focus on character, making the reader feel an emotional bond with them.Guy Gavriel Kay's recent novels inspired by Chinese history, Under Heaven (2010) and River of Stars (2013) focus much more on the personal drama of the main characters.  Liu keeps more distance and counts on the reader's curiosity to find out what happens to Dara next to keep them hooked. The tragedy that unfolds in this novel is that of a whole nation rather than the troubles of an individual character. I guess that more than a few readers in our individualistic society will have a problem with that style of storytelling.

As a result of Liu's stylistic choices, The Grace of Kings is a pretty fast paced book. I had expected to need more time to read it but the story flows in such a way that it is an almost effortless read. In this single volume, Liu stuffs a conflict comparable to the war in the Seven Kingdoms that George R.R. Martin expects to need seven volumes to finish. The way he prevents the story from bogging down in detail is really quite refreshing.

What The Grace of Kings does have in common with a lot of popular epic fantasy is the cynical view on power, gaining it, using it and especially holding on to it. Both the main characters are basically decent people who find it necessary to do horrible things to achieve their goals. The two main characters are very different men, united by a common goal. Events soon drive them apart however. What they do have in common is the belief that the other will inevitable try to force them from power. When it comes to ruling, it is all or nothing, nobody in this novel ever sets for a part of the whole. Which makes me wonder if we will see another betrayal by one of the secondary characters in the next novel.

I've seen a number of comments on the fact that women play second fiddle in this book, which surprised me a bit since Liu is an author associated with the call for more diverse fantasy and science fiction. This criticism seems valid enough though. Most of the women in this book are subordinate to men, are cast in traditionally feminine roles and do not play a part in the actual fighting. There is one notable exception but she doesn't change the general picture much. Not yet anyway, there would appear to be some interesting possibilities for this character in the second novel. Hopefully Liu can do a bit better on that front in the second volume. It seems like a shame to write a trilogy that could change the way epic fantasy is told and yet remain stuck in traditional gender roles all the same.

All in all I thought The Grace of Kings was a marvelous read. It remains to be seen how the series will develop of course but it is definitely off to a good start. Liu managed to deliver a debut novel that lives up to the promise shown in his short fiction, and that is no mean feat. The year is not nearly done and there are a few more big fantasy titles expected still, but the Grace of Kings will probably turn out to be one of the big releases of 2015. His short fiction already made Liu a writer to keep an eye on, this novel makes it clear there is much to be expected from him in the long form as well. The Grace of Kings is definitely recommended reading.

Book Details
Title: The Grace of Kings
Author: Ken Liu
Publisher: Saga Press
Pages: 623
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-4814-2427-1
First published: 2015

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