I don’t write many reviews. Quite apart from the time investment, few books grab me enough to move me to the pulpit. Of those few, even fewer in recent years have been Epic Fantasy, a genre I view with some wariness for its tendency to never-ending series and faux-Shakespearian dialogue. And as an unapologetic fan of Tolkien, my personal bar—not just for story, but for the level of craft needed to pull off an original work in this genre—is set very high.
So when I heard that multiple award-winning author Ken Liu was embarking on an Epic Fantasy series, I was intrigued. Liu—one of the most extraordinary talents the Science Fiction/Fantasy field has seen in the last several decades—never disappoints. And the fact that the series, named The Dandelion Dynasty, was going to be informed by and draw upon the Chinese Classics suggested this might be something new in a genre which I’ve generally found to be rather disappointing.
Well, “new” doesn’t come close. With The Grace of Kings, standalone first volume in the series, Liu knocks this one out of the ballpark. This isn’t just a terrific book, it’s an important one that comes at the epic tale from a different angle, with an unusual sensibility.
At 640 pages, The Grace of Kings, by the standards of the genre, isn’t a very large book. But the scope of lives, of events, of pure, unalloyed story that takes place here is more than most authors pack into a trilogy.
From the sweeping, cinematic opening scene, the author shows a command of his craft that delights. Like his characters, Liu takes great risks, using narrative techniques and pacings that, in the hands of another, would result in distancing and detachment. Instead, the cumulative effect of Liu’s technique, with its free-ranging viewpoint and delicious digressions as new characters are introduced, feels very close to the oral storytelling tradition at the core of every culture. As night deepens, we gather closer to the fire, listening with rapt attention, fully immersed in a world so real and characters so alive that, like Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Zelazny’s Amber, it’s impossible to not wholly believe in them.
But Liu gives us more than brave deeds and battles, love and loyalty, passion and betrayal, song and spectacle. From start to finish, and with not infrequent undertones of wry humour, The Grace of Kings is a meditation and commentary on power, and the ways in which that power seduces, drives, corrupts, and (in Liu’s own words) occasionally ennobles. This is a novel that embraces ambiguity and relativism, that makes simple judgments difficult, even impossible. In a world as real as ours, in which “good” actions can bring catastrophic results, and where people, feelings, and loyalties are subject to living, dynamic change, what is right? Who can see around all corners?
Not everyone likes to face ambiguity. For many—including those of a secular bent—the essentially Christian narrative of good and evil is more comforting. The fact that Liu can bring these questions before the reader without for a moment sounding preachy or sacrificing story, wonder, and sheer, breathless adventure is a supreme achievement—and you’d have to be dead to finish this book without asking yourself where certain lines are, or if they indeed exist. And to his credit, even at the very end, Liu never tips his hand, never makes judgments. He respects and trusts his readers to be smart enough to think for themselves.
But, you ask, what’s the book about? Well, here’s the sketchiest summary:
The islands of Dara, a sprawl of historically strife-torn, warring nations, are finally at peace. But that peace has been dearly bought: under the iron rule of the Emperor Mapideré, clans are split, families are divided, and men throughout Dara are forced by corvée to work for years at a time on the emperor’s monumental projects, often never to see their families again.
Against this backdrop of totalitarian brutality, a series of small events started by minor players—a corvée gang leader trying to save his skin by faking an outlandish prophecy; a wily, charismatic tavern rat named Kuni Garu; and the vengeful giant, Mata Zyndu, grim heir of a noble clan expropriated by the emperor—escalates by degrees into an armed uprising.
Before long, Kuni and Mata, now allies close as brothers, find themselves and their trusted followers at the forefront of a revolution that breaks the empire apart. But as their power grows, so does the complexity of the politics and the influence of their advisors and generals, paving the way for miscalculations, misunderstandings, and treachery.
And the players in Dara are not only human. The fractious gods and goddesses of this ancient land have their own designs, and are not above taking on human form to help their favourites in the power struggle unfolding in the human realm.
As upheaval grips this land of nobles and peasants, rascals and heroes, exotic creatures and wildly imaginative silkpunk technologies, Liu delights us with a cast of unforgettable characters, among whom Jia Matiza, a skilled herbalist and Kuni’s wife; Gin Mazoti, a female street urchin who rises to become the world’s greatest military commander; Luan Zya, a brilliant adventurer and Kuni’s master strategist; Kindo Marana, a tax collector reluctantly placed in command of an army; the Lady Risana, a clever illusionist and Kuni’s consort; and Gitré Üthu, the magic book of knowledge that writes itself, given to Luan by a mysterious teacher.
In conclusion, The Grace of Kings is a book whose audience extends far beyond the traditional readership for Epic Fantasy, a must-read for anyone who enjoys a great story.
Now where’s book Two?
Full disclosure: I was a beta reader of an early draft of this novel, and also the editor/publisher of Liu’s award-nominated novella, The Man Who Ended History (in the 2011 Panverse Three anthology from Panverse Publishing).