Review: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
The Grace of Kings, the debut novel by famed short story writer Ken Liu, is unlike anything else I’ve read in contemporary fantasy. It is “epic” in every sense of the word, portraying the collapse and rise of empires; huge battle scenes, complicated plot twists and betrayals; intimate small moments and a dizzyingly large cast of characters. It takes place in an intriguing, beautifully realized secondary world setting: the world of Dara, an archipelago of what was once seven separate kingdoms. The geography of this world ranges from tropical beaches to misty forests, deserts, plains, and snowy mountains. There are airships, battle kites, and rainbow-scaled whales with horns. There is a variety of cultures and ethnicities, with people described in a rainbow of skin tones and eye/hair color, yet the overall cultural bedrock is plainly that of ancient China. It’s a work that is soaring, enthralling, heart-wrenching, intricate, and almost astonishingly ambitious.
All this said, I will admit that it is also a work that many will not find accessible or to their taste. Liu breaks many of the biggest conventions of contemporary fantasy—and of contemporary fiction in general. You know that old workshop adage, “Show, don’t tell”? Well, Liu stomps all over that advice. There is a lot of “telling” in this work. You know that other bit of advice “Avoid infodumps”? Yeah, there’s lots of exposition here, too. And he flies against the current trend of tight third-person or first-person perspective, opting instead for an omniscient third-person point-of-view which zooms in and out of detail, flitting in and out of numerous character perspectives. The result is a narrative which can feel markedly more detached than what is usually seen these days, certainly more detached than the tight third-person narratives of, say, George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Throne) series. If what you want is pages of sustained, deep immersion in a single character’s mind, you are going to be disappointed by this book. If you are looking for gritty, moment-by-moment psychological complexity—again, you are going to be disappointed.
But there is abundant recompense in Liu’s chosen approach—at least for me. There’s a building scale of grandeur, of huge scope, of pure epicness in this book. The Grace of Kings draws upon the real-world history of the founding of China’s Han dynasty to tell the story of the forging of an empire. The main story line follows the adventures of Kuni Garu, a charming ne’er-do-well of common birth who becomes an unlikely hero of revolution. His path eventually intersects with that of Mata Zyndu, a mighty warrior of noble birth who was raised to greatness and groomed to overthrow the corrupt emperor who destroyed his family. Together, Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu work to overthrow a brutal tyrant. . . and then must face the dissolution of empire and struggle to create a new empire and world.
Interspersed with the main plot are numerous secondary stories and characters. It can feel overwhelming, but these secondary stories work beautifully to build up an entire world. And within such subplots, Liu’s famed skills as a short story writer shine: within just a few pages, and with just a few well-chosen details, he can evoke a minor character’s life and death, and tear your heart to shreds. I am still haunted by the fate of a certain minor character, whose entire story was told within seven spare pages. Kuni Garu is the charismatic, winning center of this story. . . but the real story is much larger than him. It is the story of an entire world at war, in collapse, and then struggling to be reborn.
Reading this work, there was a real excitement for me in sensing what seems the resurrection of older forms of narrative (The Illiad came to my mind) combined with a modern sensibility and concerns. This is a narrative deeply concerned with questions of power and politics: Kuni argues political philosophy with friends, quoting famed scholars of his world who have devoted their lives to the subject. Dara is a world that is at the beginning of a “steampunk” revolution in technology; it is a world that seems to teeter at the brink of modernity, and Kuni appears to be the man (and conqueror) determined to drag Dara over the threshold into a more modern world. Even if it’s at the point of a sword.
Not everything worked for me in this story. I didn’t particularly care for the squabbling, interfering gods of Dara, for instance. They did provide nice flashes of imagery every now and then, and pretty homages to fallen heroes; however, they also often felt out of place to me, and their interventions often a wholly unnecessary deux ex machina. Kuni’s escape and second rise to power also seemed to come about too quickly to me, with multiple technological innovations perfected on an improbable time scale. Yet in a work of such stunning ambition and power, these are small missteps.
The Grace of Kings will not be for everyone. It’s a doorstopper of a novel (over 600 pages) and it demands attention and focus. But I would urge the serious reader to at least give it a try. I admit that the first few chapters read a bit slowly to me, heavy as they are with world-building and exposition. But this novel builds steady momentum, and soon I was unable to tear myself away. I haven’t been so raptly immersed in a book—staying up far too late to read, forgetting to talk to my husband and children—since first encountering George Martin’s Game of Thrones. The two books tell stories about power in very different ways, in very different worlds—yet both swept me away. I’m beyond thrilled to be reading the next installment in Ken Liu’s series, debuting sometime next month.
Note: Writer Max Gladwell has a wonderfully smart analysis of The Grace of Kings’ narrative form on his blog here. He nails it when he describes how the small details in The Grace of Kings really land. And now, after reading his analysis, I want to read Romance of the Three Kingdoms.