Book Review: The Grace of Kings (Ken Liu)

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The Grace of Kings
by Ken Liu
Saga Press (April 7, 2015)

Ken Liu has long since become an acclaimed short fiction writer and translator whose works had earned multiple awards. In his eagerly expected debut novel The Grace of Kings, the first book of The Dandelion Dynasty trilogy, Liu takes us to his secondary world of the Islands of Dara: Not too long ago divided into several ever-quarreling states, but recently unified under the rule of Emperor Mapidéré from the state of Xana. Hardly anyone from the conquered states is satisfied with his rule; old nobility has been deposed and relocated, men are suffering as corvée laborers, people are growing hungry… A daring attempted assassination of Mapidéré, however, shows them that he is not invincible. An unruly and courageous student, Kuni Garu, sees that not even an emperor is above fear. Mata Zyndu, a son of a deposed duke longing for revenge for his family, takes it as a sign that the new unnatural order of things was not going to last long. Years later, wheels get into motion fast as the old emperor dies and the court plots about the new successor. A rebellion eventually rises up, sweeping through the islands. Kuni and Mata end up as unlikely allies at first, close friends soon after. Yet that’s still only the beginning of the upheaval awaiting the whole Dara…

The Most Interesting Thing

“All life is an experiment… I just promise myself to do the most interesting thing every time there’s an opportunity.”—Kuni Garu

Characters are one of the strongest features of The Grace of Kings. Even though many of them appear only briefly in the novel, most of them are portrayed very in-depth and achingly human, and especially Kuni Garu and his wife Jia Matiza have undergone the most exciting and very believable character development. Kuni’s philosophy of life-trying to live the most interesting life-is sympathetic and appealing not just to most speculative fiction readers. However, sometimes the most interesting things can lead into dark places as well, and the cheerful young man gradually grows up… It’s also interesting to watch the development of brothers Dafiro and Ratho who witness the revolution from its very beginning, comment on it with refreshing pragmatism on one side and idealism on the other, and finally part ways to follow a different leader each. And I cannot forget to mention the gods of Dara who are at the same time believable characters and beings thinking in slightly different terms than humans.

In contrast, a few near-caricatures are carefully sprinkled throughout the story to spice it up with a dash of mild absurdity or comedy, like King Huno. His portrayal adds to an almost Orwellian feel at some moments: Huno’s paranoid game of “who watches the watchmen” felt absurd and too believable at the same time. This is also true for a scene where Regent Crupo persuades the new emperor and his council that what they’re seeing is really something wholly different. Many high fantasy novels only show the usual palace intrigues disregarding anyone below a certain station; Liu did not settle for it and introduced many more levels of scheming and also different levels of characters’ motivations, sometimes conflicting or not really conscious.

The Theater of Life

“Show is substance.”—Kuni Garu

While wars are won largely by numbers, we often forget the other bits: espionage, diplomacy, pretense, infrastructure, science and technology, and last but not least some luck… Some authors forget that as well; not Liu. Threads of all these elements go through the rebellion and shape its course. Sometimes an ingenious new creation or a little show can do more for victory than a bigger army. Bits of theater—usually constructed by the resourceful Kuni—appear many times, culminating in an intense scene on the Liru river between Mata and Kuni where it becomes painfully clear that sometimes you just have to play the monster, and become one in others’ eyes, to avoid loss. This also ties to one of the strongest messages of the novel: We cannot really influence how history would remember us apart from trying to do good and hoping for the best.

While Kuni arranges his little theaters, readers and gods can watch the whole Dara as a grand theatre of life. We see personal and larger tragedies that could have been avoided if only the involved parties had complete information, or resulting from insufficient cooperation. In the rebellion, all the states fall back into quarrels over disputed lands, as the temptation to use the situation to their advantage is too sweet. These kinds of failures of cooperation and communication are very life-like and made me believe what I’ve been seeing. The whole world Liu brings us into is fascinating and diverse. The states of Dara each have a distinct culture, and we truly get a glimpse of a whole, rich culture, and not just some one defining trait to tell them apart. I was also excited about the female characters and their representation in the world. Women don’t have it easy in Dara and often have to fight prejudice or unfair law but they are a force only a fool would disregard, living their own lives, actively engaging in the rebellion and shaping their destinies.

However, I found a few drawbacks in the novel as well. One of the strongest for me was the level of technology in the world. Wars in Dara seem to be fought mostly like conflicts in late medieval times, yet there are inventions and actions evoking early 20th century and WWI. If I may allow mild spoilers for a comparison’s sake: we visit a world with airships, submarines and parachute troops, yet no firearms even though a substance like gunpowder is known. I found this aspect of the worldbuilding not very believable. I also didn’t completely believe the characters at some occasions, namely Prince Pulo as he learns about his father’s choice about the succession or Mata in his way of dividing lands. But these are just minor objections that don’t change my overall perception of the novel, which is highly positive: It has been an epic, intricate and very entertaining story.

I will be very much looking forward to returning to the Dandelion Dynasty. The Grace of Kings left me very curious about the future development of Dara and shifting of powers. And Liu dropped some hints about the second book of the trilogy on his blog: It seems that a new technological revolution awaits Dara, which will surely lead to very interesting outcomes. The Dandelion Dynasty has started very well and I have all the reasons to assume it would also continue that way.

bullet-redArrowDon’t forget to read Ken Liu’s story, “Single-Bit Error,” published in Fantasy Scroll Magazine, Issue #1, and the interview with Ken Liu we published in the same issue.

Find below a selection of books, collections, and translations by Ken Liu:

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Julie Novakova

About Julie Novakova

Julie Novakova was born in 1991 in Prague, the Czech Republic. She works as a writer, journalist and evolutionary biologist. She started publishing in English in 2013 (The Brass City; The Symphony of Ice and Dust). Before that, she had published three novels and about twenty short stories in Czech. She also works as a reviewer, columnist and interviewer mainly for the Czech SF magazine XB-1.