BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Chronicles the the fall of a young imperial dynasty in a set of kingdoms set on a scattering of Polynesian-like islands.
PROS: Grand, sweeping epic-style historical fantasy; excellent characterization; evocation of a rich and deep world; diversity of characters.
CONS: The novel’s style is unusual for epic fantasy and may require a fair bit of reader buy-in.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent turn to novels by a writer celebrated for his short stories.
The Grace of Kings marks the novel debut of Ken Liu. In it, the islands of the Dara archipelago have been split among a bunch of kingdoms for centuries. The scheming and betrayals among them have left the islands politically disunited until one King uses the new technology of airships and generalships to forge a single empire out of the islands. But when that empire threatens to fall apart in rebellion and strife due to the Emperor’s cruelty and unrelenting vision, the opportunity arises for others to sieze control. Meanwhile, watching over them all are a polite-but-scheming set of deities, each with their own favorites to promote in the coming struggle.
The Grace of Kings is a novel that is epic in scope, tone and ambition. This is a story of people and their individual struggles, but it is also a true epic fantasy that takes us from small villages to the halls of power in the capital, with nary a pause for breath. The presence of tragedy, customs, loyalty, ambition and honor on such a massive canvas reminded me of Homer’s Iliad, and of the historical plays of Shakespeare. The real origins of the novel’s historical epic roots, however, lie in the Chinese epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Although I am only familiar with that epic by name and as a series of strategy video games, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms covers about a century of Chinese history, starting with the fall of the Han Dynasty, going through the Three Kingdoms period, and ending with the foundation of the unified Jin Dynasty. Liu’s fictional history of the archipelago of Dara mixes and matches the creation of the Three Kingdoms and instead uses the fall of the Qin Dynasty (predecessor to the Han) instead of the fall of the Han. The Qin was the first Dynasty to unify China, a short and brutal reign that is very much mirrored in the events of the novel.
The novel also employs what Ken himself calls Silkpunk. This world is very light on magic, but there ARE interesting technological ideas like airships, and battle kites! Further, his world is a technologically evolving and changing one. Instead of looking to the past, and old weapons and ideas, there is a steampunk like belief in moving forward and trying new ideas. This has informed the past, and present, and as things progress, the future of the archipelago.
Above and beyond the historical epic and the silkpunk aspects are the central characters in The Grace of Kings. Although there’s a wide variety of characters of all stripes, the narrative’s main focus (which is a nebulous thing given the style discussed below) is the rise of two characters and their evolving relationship. Kuni Garu is a ne’er-do-well and reprobate who falls in with the wrong crowd but unexpectedly finds opportunity in the rebellion to become a leader and a hero. He’s a working class common man; he is the Dandelion to Mata Zyndu’s Chrysanthemum, the last son of a killed Duke, a brilliant strategist, war leader, and personal combatant. Kuni might find unexpected opportunity in rebellion, but Mata is a far more calculating sort of man who sees a chance in the wake of strife. The pair certainly make the most unexpected of friends.
Around these two, and around the pole of the failing empire, are a set of secondary characters, all with interesting stories of their own. My intuition about the events of the Three Kingdoms period tells me that the sequel will even more strongly feature a third major character, Gin Mazoti, who is introduced relatively late in The Grace of Kings, but who does get a full retrospective backstory. Her sudden fulmination into prominence helps to mark the book as being more interested in the sweep of epic, only bringing her up when she starts to make her mark.
Beyond the human characters are a set of Polynesian-aspect Gods and Goddesses. Like the aforementioned touchstone The Iliad, the Gods of Dara are extremely interested in mortal affairs. And like their Greek counterparts, these Gods are not above covertly helping their favorite champions if they can get away with it. Their bickering and wrangling was a highlight of the book. Ken’s melding of Polynesian mythology with Chinese culture is an interesting and unexpected combination.
The style of the novel is distinctive and new in that it zooms in and out to different scales, and around characters and locales. Most major characters are introduced with a pause for key backstory before picking up events in real time. The perspective of the novel ranges from close to a distant third-person, with even an epistolary chapter thrown in. The author’s mix up of techniques keeps the novel stylistically fresh even as events progress. It never feels like “more of the same” turning to the next chapter.
Some aspects of the writing style are going to require buy-in from a lot of readers, especially readers of more traditional epic fantasy. The typical epic fantasy template is Big Fat Fantasy with tons of details on events major and minor, where deep immersion is a feature. Steven Erikson, Robin Hobb, Brandon Sanderson, and many others are examples of this archetype. It is uncommon in epic fantasy to put a very light touch on some ostensibly major events. The major events are more often the set-pieces that plot revolves around. The Shakespearean/Achaean/Chinese style epic that Liu is doing here is somewhat different. Entire battles, city sieges, and other major events take place offstage, between chapters or mentioned in passing. One character, seemingly set up to be a major one, has a whiplash-fast arc of a fall, rise and fall again. The Grace of Kings is far more interested in the overall grand sweep than in every single detail. Liu could probably write novellas in the breathing spaces that he has created using this style. It can be frustrating, admittedly, to want to know more about something disposed in only a few lines. Fortunately, when the author’s pen does focus and drill down, the scenes are quite engaging.
In the couple of years that I’ve talked about the rise of Silk Road Fantasy, and my hopes for it as a subgenre and a move away from the Great Wall of Europe, it’s novels like The Grace of Kings that fill that demand for stories that set their sights on new horizons. Liu’s combination of elements from China, Polynesia and beyond, told in an epic style, is the kind of Silk Road Fantasy that I’ve always wanted to read, and love all the more now that I have.