Ken Liu – The Grace of Kings

kenliu-thegraceofkingsWily, 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, and shapeshifting gods. 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.

Ken Liu is mostly known for his prolific output as a short story writer. He’s also an author that rarely disappoints; I’ve liked, if not loved, all of his stories I’ve read. When Saga Press announced they’d snapped up his long-awaited novel it immediately went on my must-read list. The Grace of Kings is an epic Silk Road fantasy with added -punk elements; it combines traditional Chinese story elements with a Pacific Ocean islands locale and some clever technological inventions that feel organic to the setting. In other words, once again Liu didn’t disappoint. 

What immediately sets The Grace of Kings apart is Liu’s writing style. Of course the story is written in his usual beautiful prose, but he adds interesting stylistic choices in the form of recognisable story-telling elements from differing oral traditions. For example, he employs the repeated descriptive terms for people or places familiar from the Classical epics that served the bards of Greece and Rome as mnemonics and also kennings as used in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Undoubtedly, Liu incorporated more of these, but those are the ones I was already familiar with. Together they create the sense that The Grace of Kings falls in the tradition of the classic epic poems meant to be recited and told around the fire on a number of consecutive nights, but with far more modern attitudes to societal development. The pacing of the narrative, the location hopping and the sometimes rather abrupt exits – temporary or very much permanent – for various characters all add to this impression. The plot can seem somewhat sketchy, in the sense that there isn’t a strong, linear plot going from A to B, which might be off-putting to some readers, but which I found mesmerising.

There is so much to talk about with this book; I don’t even know where to start. Liu throws in everything and the kitchen sink at his story and somehow it doesn’t just stick, it works beautifully. First of all and perhaps most clearly, there are the intricate politics at the heart of the plot. While Kuni does fight outright battles, most of his battles are fought in the political field and through good governance. In fact, we see several forms of governance being implemented from a feudal system, to a federation of states, to a straight-out dictatorship and all of them have their pros and their cons. The philosophy of governance that Liu explores in the book is fascinating. But it’s not just serious philosophy, some of it is honestly hilarious, for example the scheme Cogo and Kuni come up with to ensure that merchants don’t cook their books and evade taxes. I also liked that one of the most successful generals in the Empire’s army wasn’t actually a military commander, but the chief tax collector and finance minister, whose managerial skills are what make him successful, not his prowess with a sword.

I also really appreciated Liu’s treatment of his female characters. The main female characters, Jia, Gin, Kikomi, Mira and Risana all had agency. True, two of them sort of get fridged—I mean their fates serve to spur one of the protagonists on, but they choose their ultimate fate themselves, so perhaps they were semi-fridged? Yet all of them find strength in their own way, whether it is Kikomi who learns to wield her beauty as a weapon or Gin who wields an actual sword in battle, they all have their strengths and goals they attain. Jia, Gin, and Risana all advocate for equal opportunities for women in a proactive way, which I really enjoyed, especially how startled the men are when their suggestions actually work. Jia also has the strength to recognise that since she and Kuni can’t be together, they should have other loves and in fact there seems to be a form of polyamory in the book, especially once Kuni, Jia and Risana are all reunited. It’ll be interesting to see how this situation develops in the future, whether they can build a harmonious household with the four partners and the children or whether it becomes a power struggle between the two women to be first in Kuni’s affections.

Before I go on to Kuni, Mata and some of the other characters, I have to mention how awesome the gods of the Islands of Dara are. Liu incorporates them into the story in an active role, having them show up in the narrative itself and in little insets, where they comment on events that went before, actually taking stock and declaring wins and losses for themselves. These scenes were brilliant and often also quite funny. What I really liked about their inserting themselves into the action, was that at one point I found myself distrusting or suspecting different characters of being incarnations of the gods and being surprised when they weren’t or vice versa when someone who I hadn’t suspected was revealed to be an avatar.

Liu’s characters are wonderful and very compelling. My favourites were Kuni, Jia, Luan, Gin, and perhaps surprisingly, Marana. What I liked about these characters was that they were unexpected; whether they were unconventional in their choices, surprisingly suited to a task they were given or just rising far beyond what anyone could have foreseen, they all do things that surprise even the gods. There are also no good guys or bad guys here. While Mata perpetrates horrible atrocities – and those are never excused in any way in the narrative – we’re also shown that he doesn’t do these things because he wants to do evil, but because he wants to do what is right and honourable. Similarly, Kuni is a decent man with a compassionate heart, but circumstances force him to make horrible decisions and order his troops to perform despicable acts knowing that they are awful, but the right thing to do. The book is filled with philosophical dilemmas and none of them are easily answered.

I loved The Grace of Kings. I loved the sprawling breadth and depth of the narrative. I fell in love with the characters and the Islands of Dara and I can’t wait to spend more time there. Liu brings something fresh and new through channelling classical traditions. If you love epic fantasy I can’t recommend The Grace of Kings highly enough.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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  • Bob Milne

    Great review – very well said. This was such a marvelous book, so very well-written, humorous, and (of course) deeply philosophical. It’s an usual approach to an epic fantasy, but it worked so very well.

  • Bibliotropic

    Excellent review!

    This was a hard one for me to review, because there was just so much to it. I loved it, though, and I’m already looking forward to the sequel!