Ken Liu has plenty of awards for his short stories, and with his debut novel, he's likely to earn acclaim as a novelist as well. The Grace of Kings is an ambitious, astonishing, and sublime work, one that both exemplifies and diverges from what one might think of when it comes to epic fantasy. It should rank amongst the genre's best works.
Some spoilers to follow.
The first book in the Dandelion Dynasty trilogy, The Grace of Kings spans decades and covers an epic story of rebellion, revolution and leadership.
In the recent past, Dara had been united under a single banner, that of Emperor Mapidéré. The archipelago had once been a divided set of kingdoms, all of which felt some pain living under one ruler. Liu picks up the story with a young, troublesome boy named Kuni Garu, who's described in the book as "a boy who prefers play to study", one who's mischievous and brilliant, hailing from the Cocru city of Zudi. Across the world, Mata Zyndu is a massive child: tall, with double pupil eyes, and the last child of the Zyndu family, most of whom had been killed in the war that unified Dara.
Each man finds his way under the harsh regime of Mapidéré: Kuni assembles a gang of bandits (amongst other exploits too numerous to list in a review), and eventually rises as the self-styled Duke Garu, a bold move for someone born of common blood. Meanwhile, Mata assembles his own army, and determined to reclaim his family's honor and place in the world, sets off to war. Each begins their own rebellion against the Imperial Army, and eventually, their paths cross. Each regards the other as a brother, and together, they drastically change the balance of power in Dara.
However, once their war is won, the real struggle for power begins, and the ensuing conflict is far more devastating than the battles that came before.
With The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu has constructed a remarkable fantasy narrative with an incredible cast of characters, a heart wrenching story and a book that genuinely plays with style and form that should serve as a template for fantasy epics that will come after it. Liu has imbibed a great deal of history (Liu noted that there's no small influence from some of the epic stories from the Han Dynasty of China), and the depth of his world-building leads to a rich and vibrant world that deserves endless stories. Fortunately, there's a wonderful map, glossary and list of characters which helped me figure out where everything was happening and who everyone was.
But Liu is aiming to do more than just set his story in an exotic location and play with an interesting set of characters — it's a genuinely interesting experiment in form and style, which allows him to expand the vision and scale of the story he's telling. In a recent interview in SF Signal conducted by Paul Weimer, Liu noted that he was influenced by the negative space in Chinese artwork: "Negative space is important in the aesthetic of traditional Chinese arts like brush painting and calligraphy, and I wanted to try for a similar effect in the novel."
These interludes introduce additional characters, provide small anecdotes and all of the small moments that build to a crescendo that is an epic event. It pays off wonderfully, in a number of ways: it shows the breadth and depth of the world and the sheer scale of the events that he's working to convey, but critically, it undermines the idea of a central 'hero's journey' that seems to define most major fantasy epics. Liu takes the time to introduce numerous side characters and to demonstrate the impact of major events on the individuals caught up in every aspect of the story. Thus, we see that the major events of the story aren't driven just by a determined man with a sword: it's the common goodwill of the hero's supporters and their troops, the civilians caught up in the middle and championing gods who collectively create these larger events.
This dynamic plays into the events of the story as well. While Kuni and Mata are as close as brothers throughout their revolution, they're diametrically opposed to one another. Mata embodies his family's legacy of honor, respect and courage on the battlefield, while Kuni is clever, innovative and willing to do what it takes to win on the battlefield. These differences between each man is part of what splits them apart and turns each against one another, and in some ways, Mata embodies a far more traditional view of warfare and the role of the warrior on the battlefield, while Kuni represents a far more modern vision of how a war should be fought and how a kingdom should be ruled.
Each man's worldview and history informs one another's style of governance: Mata is a harsh ruler, one who returns the world to its former self, with numerous warring kingdoms vying for power against one another. Kuni, on the other hand, makes several observations that stuck with me as I was reading this: Despite the problems inherent to ruling a massive government, fewer people died as a result of unification.
In many ways, Liu points out the inherent differences between local autonomy and the benefit of a wider rule. Some people died due to the heavy hand of the Empire, to be sure, but how many lives were improved through the unheralded improvements such an organization brought to Dara, from roads to the better distribution of food and economy? This is a question which would never have appeared in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth stories, and few other fantasy novels that I've come across really address these modern concerns in the level of detail Liu has.
There will likely be a number of comparisons to George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels, but Liu seems to have struck a far more modern voice here. Rather than recreating a fantasy version of the War of the Roses of a retelling of ancient Han Dynasty tales, he's taken these ideas as a starting point and crafted a far more contemporary narrative here. Personally, while I found The Grace of Kings and A Game of Thrones to be equally dense and rich, I had a far easier time parsing and ultimately enjoying the former.
Ultimately, though, The Grace of Kings isn't a didactic novel that's out to parse the differences between world viewpoints: it's a stunning character story about the rise and fall of two equal characters as they topple a major empire and rebuild the world. The friendship between the massive Mata and diminutive Kuni is a complex and rich one, and their story is what will draw readers in time and again. Along the way, there are numerous epic battles between massive armies that rival anything put to page in fantasy. With its close connections to Chinese narratives, Liu has also created a fantasy epic with a different set of DNA from those of Tolkien and his imitators, which gives The Grace of Kings a unique and different feel, one that's really been needed in the genre.
Above all, The Grace of Kings is an engrossing book to dive into. The rich island world of Dara and its numerous characters was the perfect world to visit, with a suitably epic story that has me eager to jump back to page one and start the entire journey over before the next installment of the series comes out. Liu’s novel is a bold new entry in Fantasy, and if his short fiction career is any indication, it’s only the start of some epic stories to come.