Ken Liu’s fiction has appeared in F&SF, Asimov’s, Analog, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Clarkesworld, among other places. He is a winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards. He lives near Boston. Grace of Kings will mark his debut as a novelist. You can also find Ken at @kyliu99 on Twitter.
I talked to Ken in detail about The Grace of Kings and his jump into novels.
Paul Weimer: You’re well known, especially to SF Signal readers and fans as a damn fine short story writer. What prompted you to make the switch to novel-length format for Grace of Kings?
Ken Liu: The easy answer is that I wanted more readers. It is simply a fact of the SFF market that many more readers are interested in reading novels rather than short fiction.
The more complicated answer is that I wanted to tell a story that re-imagines a set of historical legends and facts for a contemporary audience, and that required a larger canvas than short fiction could provide.
PW: PW: What’s the elevator pitch for Grace of Kings?
KL: I’ll quote my editor, Joe Monti, for this one: “It’s The Aeneid as a fantasy novel, it’s War and Peace as a fantasy novel, it’s a retelling of the rise and fall of the Han dynasty as a fantasy novel.”
PW: You mention Romance of the Three Kingdoms as a major inspiration for the novel. What do you think this work, relatively unfamiliar to Western audiences, offers you and others as inspiration and ur-text?
KL: In the Chinese literary tradition, historical romances play the role of foundational narratives, much as epics like the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and Beowulf play a similar role for Western literature. These tales, based on actual history but mixed with legends, have been retold and re-imagined many times, and are often among the first stories children hear.
When I was in grade school, I used to run home every day during lunch break to listen to the pingshu storyteller on the radio with my grandmother, both of us entranced by tales of heroism and betrayal. This was how I absorbed Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and a great deal of what I’ve learned about storytelling can be traced back to these early lessons.
Though I took many narrative tricks from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the actual source material for The Grace of Kings comes from Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian. Sima painted vivid portraits of historical figures in his biographies (not unlike Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans), and parts of The Grace of Kings deliberately evoke that “historian’s voice” to offer another perspective on the events and characters.
Since I also do a lot of literary translation, I like to think of translation as a metaphor for creating fiction as well. When you take a foundational narrative from one literary tradition and re-imagine it for readers steeped in another literary tradition, the combination can yield effects not otherwise possible.
I also want to point out that while I draw a lot of inspiration from Chinese literary predecessors, the novel is told using a deliberate melding of narrative conventions taken from multiple literary traditions. There are wuxia-style flashback character introductions as well as Anglo-Saxon-style kennings, poems based on Tang Dynasty models as well as songs imitating Middle English lyrics, rhetorical devices taken from Greek and Latin epics as well as formal descriptions reminiscent of Ming Dynasty novels. The opening scene, for example, makes use of an extended series of parallel sentences with repetitive structure to form a catalog, something familiar in old oral epics but not often seen in modern works. A reader may feel this novel is different, but if I’ve succeeded, the reader should also feel, after an initial period of adjustment, that this melded style is the only one right for the story.
PW: There is, in your style in the writing of Grace of Kings, a lot of “negative space” in the novel as certain large events and even character arcs are dealt with quickly in the space of this sweeping epic. Do you intend to return to those events in one form or another?
KL: Negative space is important in the aesthetic of traditional Chinese arts like brush painting and calligraphy, and I wanted to try for a similar effect in the novel. A side benefit is that I do have lots of places to fill in should I end up writing short fiction in this universe!
PW: How else do you think your short story output and writing influenced your writing of the novel? What did you have to learn in order to bootstrap from short story length to novel length?
KL: One particular feature of Chinese historical romances is the use of “side stories” of secondary characters to advance the plot obliquely. Writing these side stories is a lot like writing short fiction, and I could use some of my skills as a short story writer in these sections.
The biggest challenge of going from short fiction to novel for me was learning how to track the thousands of worldbuilding decisions and details about plot and character required by a long novel. With a short story, I could keep everything in my head, but with The Grace of Kings, I had to create a wiki and write mini wikipedia entries to keep everything straight.
PW: The mythology of the Gods, and the whole physical archipelago layout of our world invokes Polynesia. Why a Polynesian overlay to a Chinese epic structure? How did the use of those elements influence your basic dynastic fall and rise narrative frame?
KL: Early on, I realized that setting this story in a fantasy version of China would have been a mistake. This is because the history of the West’s encounter with China from the time of Marco Polo has been saturated with Orientalism and the colonial gaze. I felt that it was impossible for readers to approach this story with fresh eyes through the haze of stock images and stereotypes that a “magic China” story would have evoked.
To allow the essence of the story to be perceived, I had to give it new flesh.
I settled on an archipelago setting because it is very different from continental China, and the new setting forced me to rethink cultures, peoples, languages, customs, technologies, and even the metaphors that characters would use. And I do think the result is far more interesting than a “magic China” tale.
PW: For me, as someone very interested in Silk Road Fantasy, this is a novel that epitomizes that idea. I’ve heard you use the phrase silkpunk. What are your goals in exploring this subgenre of fantasy with Grace of Kings?
KL: I use “silkpunk” as a shorthand for an aesthetic that I wanted to create in this novel. Silkpunk shares with steampunk a fascination with technology roads not taken, but it is distinguished by a visual style inspired by Chinese block prints and an emphasis on materials of historic significance to East Asia—silk, bamboo, ox sinew, paper, brushes—as well as other organic materials available to a seafaring culture like coconut, whalebone, fish scales, corals, etc.
The result is a technology vocabulary that feels more organic and inspired by biomechanics. For instance, the bamboo-and-silk airships compress and expand their gasbags to change the amount of lift and are powered by feathered oars, which means that when illuminated at night, they pulsate and move like jellyfish through an empyrean sea. Similarly, artificial limbs described in the book draw their inspiration from the “wooden ox” of Zhuge Liang in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, constructed from intricate wood-based mechanisms powered by ox sinew.
And finally, the “-punk” suffix is taken seriously. The overall arc of The Grace of Kings (and the series as a whole) isn’t one about the return to a status quo ante or some golden age of the past — it is about rebellion, challenge, revolution (possibly continuous).
My goal in exploring a new way to write epic fantasy is fundamentally the same as the goal of most writers: to delight readers. None of this talk about foundational narratives and new aesthetics and melding of narrative traditions and piercing Orientalism means anything if the story isn’t fun. And I think it is fun. What’s cooler than a pair of soaring battle kites carrying heroes into aerial duels? And I put many other cool things I’ve always wanted to read about into the novel: magical books that read minds; jealous gods who manipulate and posture and lie and steal; a street urchin who becomes the greatest battlefield tactician of her generation; women and men inventing new ways to fight in the sky; ladies and princesses who plot and fight alongside lords and princes; and giant water beasts who bring storms and tempests to human affairs.
PW: What’s next for you as a writer?
KL: The second book in the Dandelion Dynasty series is almost done — more intrigue, more strategy, more cool silkpunk technology!– and I’ll then move on to the third book and possibly start a new book in a completely different genre. And there are always a few short fiction opportunities that I can’t pass up.
[Editorial note: Ken also has a forthcoming collection of his short fiction, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, also coming out from Saga Press this year]
PW: Where can readers find out more about you, or meet you online or out in the physical world?
KL: They can find out more about my work on my website, chat with me on Twitter, or sign up for my mailing list to get sneak peaks of upcoming releases. I’ll also be going to a variety of cons around the country to promote the book (details at my web site).
PW: Thanks Ken!