Ken’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 with his family.
Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, the first in a fantasy series, will be published by Saga Press, Simon & Schuster’s new genre fiction imprint, in 2015. Saga will also publish a collection of his short stories. Ken is also on Twitter @kyliu99
by Ken Liu
With The Grace of Kings, I wanted to re-imagine the story of the rise of the Han Dynasty—a narrative as foundational to Chinese literature as the Iliad and the Odyssey are to the literatures of the West—as a silkpunk epic fantasy in a new secondary fantasy archipelago setting.
This is a story of dynamism, of change, and of mastering and being mastered by the currents of power. It is about two unlikely friends, a ne’er-do-well bandit and the last scion of a noble family, who join together to rebel against tyranny only to find themselves on opposite sides of an ideological divide over how to create a more just world as they approach victory. It is also the story of many secondary characters, of a young street urchin who rises to become the greatest tactician of her generation, of a tax-collector who must apply his bureaucratic skills to the strategies of warfare, of a jealous philosopher and a cunning actress and an ambitious princess who must plot for victory from beyond the grave.
The challenges of this project were many, and chief among them was the difficulty of piercing through the haze of Orientalism that plagues many “magical China” stories. The history of the West’s encounter with China from the time of Marco Polo onwards means that stories that draw inspiration from China’s antiquity must contend with misconceptions and stereotypes that suffuse both fictional and nonfictional accounts by Western writers. The colonial gaze that views China as an opulent but indolent land populated by a superstitious, passive, collectivist population ripe for outside conquest lurks in the interpretive background of any story that is set in “China.”
Even basic terms like “filial piety” and “dragon” are problematic, historical translations. “Filial piety,” for example, attributes to Confucianism a sort of religious sentiment—modeled on Western religions—that is largely absent in the source culture and contemporary Chinese translators debate whether it is appropriate to continue to use it. A “Chinese dragon,” similarly, has nothing to do with Western dragons. A loong (or long in pinyin) is an ancient mythological Chinese creature whose domain is water (not fire-breathing) and whose portrayal in Chinese culture is influenced by Buddhist naga deities (and not by Christian conceptions of the Devil). It has nothing to do with the dragon of Western mythology, and by translating the creature as a “dragon,” it is impossible to conceive of it as something distinct, independent of the Western observer’s perspective.
In the end, 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.
To this basic worldbuilding frame I added a new technology-fantasy aesthetic I call “silkpunk” in which fantastical elements like vengeful gods and goddesses, giant water beasts who bring storms, magical tomes that write themselves, and illusionists who literalize our fears are mixed with a new technology vocabulary based on organic materials (silk, bamboo, paper, feathers, coconut, coral, leather, ox sinew) and biomechanics, leading to silk-draped, feather-winged airships filled with women warriors, steam-driven underwater boats that move like whales, lodestone metal detectors, and soaring battle kites that carry honor-bound duelists into the air.
Similarly, because the motivations and values of some of the characters are so alien to modern sensibilities (think of the wrath of Achilles from the Iliad), I had to think long and hard about how to preserve the essence of the source material while reimagining it in a way that is appealing and understandable for a contemporary audience. Such a project has to function on multiple levels so that both readers who are familiar with the source material and readers who are completely ignorant of it would “get” the story and derive—perhaps different—kinds of enjoyment and pleasure from it.
I also chose to use a narrative structure and some narrative techniques that break with some contemporary epic fantasy conventions. For instance, the main narrative will sometimes come to a “pause” as the backstory of a secondary character is told; and the POV shifts at different scales rapidly, often imitating the voice of a historian or bard between episodes of intimate focus. This harks back to some of the ways that older Chinese works like Ming Dynasty novels and traditional wuxia novels deal with epic-scaled stories, but also has analogs in Western epics. In addition, the novel liberally employs tropes and narrative tricks drawn from both Western models like the Iliad and Beowulf as well as Chinese models like pingshu storytelling (which is how I first learned about the Chinese historical romances from which the novel draws inspiration). The result is a blend that I hope readers will find both strange and familiar, making the underlying story at once new and accessible.