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.