Peter Tieryas is a character artist who has worked on films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2. His novel, Bald New World, was listed as one of Buzzfeed’s 15 Highly Anticipated Books as well as Publisher Weekly’s Best Science Fiction Books of Summer 2014. His writing has been published in places like Kotaku, Kyoto Journal, Tor, Electric Literature and ZYZZYVA, and he blogs at tieryas.wordpress.com and tweets @TieryasXu.
The botanical gardens of Ken Liu’s imagination in The Grace of Kings are vast and epic, a hybrid mix that includes an herbarium of political intrigue, a glasshouse of philosophical quandaries, and bridges connecting them through the ambitions of their characters. The canvas for their machinations and conspiracies are the islands of Dara, split into the six states, their unity sundered with the death of the emperor. The horticulture of the saga is in part the Chinese epics of the Warring States period and the decline of the Qin Dynasty. But that’s only the launching point for a riveting taxonomy that dissects historical dialectics and mottles Hegelian theory with causes that are as practical as they are authentic. Survival is the ultimate creed, as in the case of two rebels who face death for a late shipment and prefer insurrection in its place. The Grace of Kings is a poetry of war in which the stanzas are accented by an uncanny mix of airships, gods, and flowers. A brief discussion on the values of the chrysanthemum versus the dandelion hints at the thematic conflict of scents that pervades with olfactory fervor. The chrysanthemum is “the last flower to bloom in autumn, defiant against winter. Its fragrance is exquisite, and overwhelms all competition. In tea, it awakens the spirit; in bouquets, it dominates the arrangement. But it is not a flower that endears.” Whereas the dandelion “is hardy and determined, adaptable and practical. The flower looks like a small chrysanthemum, but it’s much more resourceful and far less delicate… The dandelion’s leaves and flowers can fill your belly, its sap cure your warts, its root calms your fevers.”
Fever has struck the whole of Dara, a terminal illness that is worsened by a corrupt new emperor. “What do you think about a maze made of fine fish and tasty meats?” his chatelain tempts him. The emperor is all too glad to be distracted by carnal pleasures.
The government breaks down into a poisonously brittle order. While the old emperor had noble motives and sought to pioneer changes with his reforms, he was guilty of the one unforgivable sin; hubris. “I have always tried only to make the world of men more perfect, closer to the world of the gods,” he declares, to which an old fishermen god replies, “There is often no line between perfection and evil.”
In The Grace of Kings, there is rarely evil, only strength, will, corruption, and evolution. The gods are as petty and fickle as humans, and old emperor’s policies fall into ruin after his demise. Forces arise, then dissipate. Others bond, as in the case of the main two protagonists. One of them is Mata, an eight-foot warrior, courageous, bold, and a blunt force of nature. The other is Kuni, coming from a humble background, thoughtful of people, more wily and able to adapt. Together, they seek to reestablish order in the maelstrom of imperial chaos, molding it into their respective visions. But their approaches differ. “Mata had disapproved of Kuni’s plan, thinking them more akin to theatre than warfare, but he had to admit that the results of Kuni’s tricks were desirable.” Likewise, Kuni is impressed by the strength and valor of his compatriot. Their relationship anchors the book, a pull and tug bond that chisels both and helps them to reach to the proverbial heavens.
The Grace of Kings takes me back to the Chinese classics I read countless times growing up. If you’re familiar with them, it adds to the layers, the way Liu plays with, builds on, and excavates the saga. But even if you’re not, it won’t matter as the novel stands on its own and is a unique cross pollination that is both original and compelling. At the same time, I hope the series will inspire readers curious to find out more about the history to seek out the cultural tapestry of those turbulent times that centuries later are still studied in China.
While The Grace of Kings is reminiscent of those Asian classics, it transcends culture with a cast that is as quirky as they are doughty, a mix of heroes, commoners, and warriors who aid, support, fail, kill, and are butchered. History rips off the page, slashing at your chest, dripping blood with the savagery of battle and warriors. Often, the characters are brought to life with a story from their past, symbolizing who they are. Other times, it’s a piece of dialogue, a proverb as chorus to their arc. We get a feel for all the key figures, their motives, traumas, and fatal weaknesses. Chief among them is the advisor, Luan Zya, whose background and actions form an impetus for the entire narrative in a revelation that is as shocking as it is brilliant. His origin story is one of the most brutal, and revenge was never so palpable as reliving the tragedy of his past which involves the loss of his entire family (his father dresses him up as a girl and has a soldier pretend to kidnap him in a daring escape). Liu paints that past with his words the way Regent Crupo describes his own writing:
“…he shaped his wax logograms with the sensitivity of a child as well as the passionate abandon of a swordsman, and the zyndari letters from his brush leapt off the page like a flock of migrating wild geese captured in mid-flight over a still pond. Many imitated his calligraphy but few could equal or even approach his artistry.”
The pieces assemble, the battles rage, characters we follow are lost, and dynasties take root. The boundaries between history and fiction blur. Fantasy seeps into reality. We are challenged by a race with the highest stakes. Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings is like the mystical book Luan Zya receives from a divine hermit. “The book grows as you grow.” The prose gardens are extensive, an elaborate ecosystem gracefully balanced so that each chapter intertwines with another. A seed planted a few chapters back springs unexpectedly, forming a satisfying cohesion that another writer might have overwatered and caused to entangle. There are plenty of vistas to marvel at here. Don’t be surprised if you end up wandering in them forever.