The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Executive summary: Book one of the Dandelion Dynasty by Ken Liu has a lot to love for any fan of epic fantasy, historical fiction, or Asian-influenced literature. It’s a promising debut and a breath of fresh air that comes at epic fantasy from a new and unique angle, including east Asian influences and a sweeping point of view and epic structure. TGOK is not without its problems, including representation of female characters, and its structure and shifting viewpoints take some getting used to and may put off some fans who are looking for something more straightforward and familiar. Overall, I give The Grace of Kings 9 out of 10 lanterns.

lantern ranking

The blurb:

Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, soaring battle kites, conspiring goddesses, underwater boats, magical books, as a streetfighter-cum-general who takes her place as the greatest tactitian of the age. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.

Full spoilers below for The Grace of Kings

Sweeping Scope

The structure and POVs in this book are different from most epic fantasy you will read. It’s definitely a different experience, which will be either refreshing or off-putting to readers. Liu has described the influence of Chinese historical romances as well as epics like the Aeneid and Beowulf on his novel:

Like these epics, there’s a distant view similar to the “epic voice” and then, from time to time, we zoom in, but still omniscient.

The voice will often feel distant. This is about as far from a personal lens as you can get without being totally omniscient. But this voice does help span sometimes vast amounts of time that can pass between different parts of the book or even just between chapters. We will leap months or even years into the future, which allows the story to span from Kuni and Mata’s childhoods to their deaths and ascensions to various thrones.

Another interesting facet of TGOK is the background conflict between the gods. Throughout the story, we get glimpses into interactions between the gods of Dara, each of whom is trying to advance the interests of their chosen people and state. We find out that the wars of Dara are proxy wars between the gods, and that Kuni Garu, Mata Zyndu and the rest are the gods’ chosen champions. The gods are bound by rules and honor not to “directly” interfere, but they delight in finding loopholes in these codes (apparently it’s fine if one of the gods’ maelstroms just happens to be passing by at just the right time to sink an imperial fleet).

Liu takes us to the opposite end of the spectrum as well. Between godly liaisons and the maneuverings of kings, we get to tag along with a pair of brothers, Ratho and Dafiro, lowly soldiers who fight for the revolution before ending up on different sides of the war that erupts between the revolution’s two greatest heroes. When Kuni’s men finally cut down Mata Zyndu at the book’s climax, it is the death of Ratho as his brother Dafiro looks on that packs the greater punch. The relationship between Ratho and Dafiro is a parallel and an inverse to that between. Where Mata and Kuni call each other brother before parting in anger and betrayal, Ratho and Dafiro part cheerfully, following their lords because of the respect they have for them as men, heroes, and figures of idolatry, not because of their respective political goals. In the end, it is not a question of politics that leads these two brothers down different paths – just the whim of the god of randomness, and the fact that they chose to worship heroes on the opposite sides of a war. Ratho and Dafiro are proxies into the horrors that war inflicts on the common people sucked up into it.

Silkpunk

The world has brand new cultures, languages, and peoples. While the technology is clearly “East Asia-inspired,” it doesn’t feel like “magic China” or some stereotype of Orientalism. (I call this aesthetic of silk-draped airships and whale-like underwater boats “silkpunk[1] “)

The “silkpunk” aesthetic Liu weaves into his world was one of the great successes of the novel for me. Not only are the airships and battle kites insanely cool, but they interact with the plot in vital ways. The superiority of the imperial air fleet becomes a liability when Kuni Garu infiltrates the one base in the world where the lighter-than-air gas used in the airships is harvested.

I also love the way the quest for knowledge plays out, especially through Luan Zya, who wants nothing more than to restore the scholarly land of Haan. It is Luan’s daring ideas and new inventions that turn the tide so often in the favor of Kuni Garu, in whom Luan recognizes a kindred spirit. And the magical tome that collects and organizes Luan’s vast stores of knowledge and often gives him the answers to problems he’s facing doesn’t feel like a Deus ex Machina, even though it was literally given to him by a god. That’s some deft work on Liu’s part.

With Luan, it feels as though there’s a scientific revolution brewing under Kuni’s political one. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in subsequent novels.

Where are the women?

One of the fair criticisms of The Grace of Kings is the limited presence of women with meaningful roles in the story. Sure, the kickass lady-general Gin Matiza says “screw you, gender roles” towards the end of the novel, and there is the princess’s noble sacrifice early on. But there’s no question that the first book is about Mata and Kuni and the men that surround them. That’s not to say that there are no interesting female characters, notably Jia and, later, Risana, but they mostly remain on the sidelines in the first novel. This is where TGOK lost that tenth lantern from me.

These paragraphs from an NPR review of TGOK by Amal El-Mohtar are worth excerpting in full (emphasis mine):

The Grace of Kings is in many ways very respectful of women — but also tied up in knots about how to rescue them from medieval literary conventions. At one point, a key character has a heartfelt, beautiful conversation with another woman about her constricted options — yet she remains confined. Over and over women seem to speak against their place in stories written by men, but are powerless to change them — as if Liu knows the work ahead of him but is uncertain of how to undertake it in the world he’s invented.

But then, marvelously, he changes the world.

The last third of the book is rife with emotional whiplash, shocking rises in and reversals of fortune — and tremendous hope for the sequel: Liu is building a dynasty, playing a long game, and I’m very interested in seeing it through to its conclusion. I’m astonished to note that this is a debut, that Liu can pull something like this off after an amazing, award-sweeping run of short fiction. Having taken off, the heights and distances I expect this series to reach and cover are staggering, and I can’t wait for more.

Here’s what Liu has to say:

Basically, I agree with you: women have always been half of the population, and the fact that written history either ignored their existence or suppressed their existence is no reason for our fantasy literature to replicate the error.

The source narrative I worked from suffers from a similar problem with the lack of women in its pages. And I decided to deal with the problem by writing the novel as a story of continuous change and revolution, rather than one about a return to some golden age of the past or the status quo ante.

The world in my novel starts out being one in which it is still the men who do most of the fighting and engage in the politics, but the text shows that women are not absent: they are fighting for power in constrained circumstances.

However, as the story goes on, the dynamic changes. In every revolution, rebels can try to get more power by taking it from the powerful or by empowering the powerless. And the story ends in a place that I think you’ll find interesting re: the role of women.

It is a long arc and it takes the whole novel to do it. But it is an arc that is going to be carried further in the sequels.

So it looks like there will be more expanded roles for women in the books to come. I will definitely be reading book two of the Dandelion Dynasty (First draft already done!). Liu has done enough to earn my trust with this first book that I will be tuning in to the next one in order to see what direction he takes it in. I’m rooting struggle over the future of the dynasty between the children of Risana and Jia! Also maybe to find out what lands exist away from the Islands of Dara across the sea… TGOK had some tantalizing hints! And what’s an empire without a little imperialism?

Ultimately, The Grace of Kings is about the revolving door of friendship and enmity between two wildly different men. While Mata was at times difficult to sympathize with, he was never quite a villain – though I’ll bet there were few rooting for him over Kuni Garu. The story inevitably ended in Mata’s tragic death. It will be interesting to see what book two looks like without this conflict shaping it. Will Kuni Garu be the benevolent ruler he hopes to be, or the autocrat he fears he may become?

Title Drop (warning, TV Tropes)

Page 230-231, sung by then-General Mata Zyndu when they are playing the game of comparing themselves to flowers:

The ninth day in the ninth month of the year:

By the time I bloom, all others have died.

Cold winds rise in Pan’s streets, wide and austere:

A tempest of gold, an aureal tide.

My glorious fragrance punctures the sky.

Bright-yellow armor surrounds every eye.

With disdainful pride, ten thousand swords spin

To secure the grace of kings, to cleanse sin.

A noble brotherhood, loyal and true.

Who would fear winter when wearing this hue?

Page 587, spoken by Luan Zya in convincing Kuni Garu to go back on his word and betray his new peace with Mata to end the war between Dasu and Cocru once and for all:

The grace of kings is not the same as the morals governing individuals.

Page 599, Kuni Garu eulogizing Mata Zyndu:

You died a grace of kings at my hand, but doubt will haunt me till the day I die.

Page 606, the god Kiji toasting the late Kikomi with her god, Tututika:

To the grace of kings, which fit her better than any crown or mortal tribute.

Artwork by Francesca Myman/Locus Publications

Can I please get some fan art of Mata on the battle kite above Zudi? Also Kuni’s army riding the Cruben fleet. Thanks.

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Some thoughts on the Iron Druid Chronicles

I finally got around to getting a library card a few weeks ago because I saw that you could download audiobooks, which is great when you have a hard time justifying dropping $20 on one otherwise. I was also excited to test out the ebook loan program, which let me download and plow through the latest 3 novels and 2 novellas in The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne. (They are: The Grimoire of the Lamb, Tricked, Two Ravens and One Crow, Trapped, and Hunted). This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive review, but here are a few thoughts I have on the series so far. Spoiler alert, I’m a fan.

Atticus O'Sullivan

Freagróidh tú! Wait, shit, is this Moralltach?

WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS (For Dresden as well as Iron Druid)

I read the first Iron Druid book, Hounded, this winter and loved it. I’ll admit I was a little wary going in – I hadn’t read a lot of urban fantasy aside from Dresden, and I had seen Hearne compared unfavorably to Jim Butcher in reviews.

I was pleasantly surprised. Iron Druid does have a lot in common with Dresden – but mostly to its credit rather than its detriment. Both feature snarky magical protagonists up against staggering – and rapidly escalating – odds. Both have snarky non-human sidekicks. Both have precocious pets. Both have uncomfortable sexual tension with their nubile apprentices. Both have panoplies of supernatural baddies, from gods to demons, werewolves to vampires, and witches to holy warriors.

“I don’t have anything against God. Far from it. But I don’t understand Him. And I don’t trust a lot of the people that go around claiming that they’re working in His best interests. Faeries and vampires and whatnot—those I can fathom. Even demons. Sometimes, even the Fallen. I can understand why they do what they do. But I don’t understand God. I don’t understand how He could see the way people treat one another, and not chalk up the whole human race as a bad idea. I guess He’s just bigger about it than I would be.”

So there’s a lot in common. But I think there are some key points of departure that give Iron Druid its own unique character.

First, there’s the character of Atticus himself. He’s got that same snark-under-fire thing going on as Dresden, but his is couched in about two millennia of practice and cultural references. Of course, most references are still pretty recent, because how often do you really get to casually slip the Eddas into conversation?

In a lot of ways Atticus makes me think a lot more of the Doctor than Harry Dresden as a character. He’s an unimaginably old loner working for the good and protection of humanity who has experienced more love and loss than most of us could ever imagine. But unlike the Doctor, Atticus settles down from time to time. Later in the series Atticus reveals the tragedy of the centuries he spent married to a woman in Egypt, and the debacle that ensued when he shared his immortality with his wife and children. Not that Dresden doesn’t have some real shit in his past (and present for that matter), but we’re just seeing the last little blip of Atticus’ life, and Hearne does a great job at hinting at the shape of everything that’s below the surface of the water. The man has lived.

One little quibble I have with Iron Druid is its larger cosmology. When you have gods created by every little belief people have ever had, you end up with a LOT of gods. Part of the problem I have is with seeming inconsistencies or just things that haven’t been clearly explained (caveat, I did read these very quickly. It’s entirely possible I’m an idiot and missed things.). For example, there are lots of different Jesuses because people imagine Jesus in lots of different ways. But they’re all unique individuals. But for some reason the Thor that Atticus and friends kill in Hammered is Thor Prime, Ultra-Alpha-Omega Thor, so when he dies the Norse are a little fucked because he won’t be around to take on Loki in Ragnarok. Someone suggests they just get a different Thor to do it, like the Marvel Thor! (Wait, fictional characters exist because of belief now too? So is Superman running around somewhere? Sauron? Little Bunny Foo-Foo? I don’t know what to believe!) But for some reason no other Thors are worthy, because apparently he was only imagined in one way? I don’t get it.

Zeus, get your hand off my ass!

Zeus, get your hand off my ass!

In Iron Druid’s mythos, Gods’ powers come from belief, so those with the most believers are the most powerful. Atticus tempts a few forgotten gods like Bast with the promise that this or that action will attract new followers. But why do these gods even exist anymore? There are passing comments that the Greek and Roman gods aren’t nearly as powerful as they were in their heyday, but it doesn’t seem to be a proportional decline. That one guy sacrificing a goat to Jupiter in a shaded grove somewhere apparently still gives him enough power to zap the living daylights out of Europe? So is belief only used to create gods, and then they’re there forever, but if they lose believers they just power down a little bit? This hasn’t been explored enough for my satisfaction, but I imagine future volumes will investigate a bit further. As I said, it’s a minor quibble and didn’t impede my enjoyment of the series. If an author wrote a compelling enough story for me to ask nitpicking questions about his magic system after plowing through 3 novels and two novellas in less than a week, he’s doing several somethings very right.

Also the Druid power set is a pretty cool major magic system. It brings some interesting limitations/moral questions into play – for example that he can’t use is unbinding powers to directly harm or kill, but Gaia doesn’t care so much about the plenty of loopholes he’s able to find. I feel like Atticus is going to have some major, even deeper guilt issues in future volumes at the body count in his wake, even if the bulk of them end up being demons, draugar and vampires. Seems to me that Atticus has had to become a War Druid, and in Granuaile he’s creating another of the same. I can see some major self-reflection in the future. We’ll have to see what crotchety old Arch-Druid has to say about what Atticus has been up to these past two millennia.

It’s okay Oberon, you could totally take Mouse.

I also thought it was bold of Hearne to do the 12-year time jump between Tricked and Trapped (spanned by the excellent novella Two Ravens and One Crow.) As I was reading the early series, I was a little disappointed at the 12-year training period for Granuaile, because I wanted to see two kickass War Druids, dammit! But I also didn’t want to cheapen her training by doing a “Oh my gosh she’s a prodigy here’s a training montage!”-type thing, and Hearne didn’t disappoint. The time jump gave a little lacuna of druidic peace in between some major clusterfucks. It felt right, and for me gave the series a greater feeling of having a longer arc rather than being a big-bad-of-the-novel type serial. If you haven’t caught up on Iron Druid, do it! The next novel, Shattered, comes out June 17! I don’t imagine I’ll have the patience to wait for the library to pick up a copy, and I will definitely be done by Skin Games well before then (As in, within 24 hours of its release). This is going to be a glorious pair of months, reading-wise.

Those are a few of my thoughts, such as they are, on the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne. Can’t wait to see what’s in store for my favorite Druid since Allanon!