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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Grace Of Kings by Ken Liu (Reviewed by Achala Upendran)


Official Author Website
Order The Grace Of Kings HERE
Read A Silkpunk Epic: The Grace of Kings and a New Aesthetic
Read Silkpunk: Redefining Technology for The Grace of Kings
Read Silkpunk: playing engineer in an imaginary world

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Ken Liu is a Chinese-American science-fiction writer, poet, lawyer and computer programmer. His short stories have appeared in F&SF, Asimov's, Analog, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and other magazines, as well as several anthologies, including the Year's Best SF. He is also a translator of science fiction and literary stories from Chinese into English. He is a winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards for his short story "The Paper Menagerie". The Grace Of Kings is his debut fantasy novel. He currently lives near Boston with his family.

OFFICIAL BLURB: Two men rebel together against tyranny—and then become rivals—in this first sweeping book of an epic fantasy series from Ken Liu, recipient of Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.

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, 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.

Fans of intrigue, intimate plots, and action will find a new series to embrace in the Dandelion Dynasty.

FORMAT INFORMATION: The Grace Of Kings is 640 pages long divided over fifty-one chapters that are spread over four titled sections. The book features multiple third-person POV characters and also has a glossary, a pronunciation note and a list of characters. The Grace Of Kings is the first volume of The Dandelion Dynasty chronicles.

April 27, 2015 marked the hardcover and e-book publication of The Grace Of Kings via Saga Press.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The theme of the evil Empire is a tried and tested one in high fantasy. If you need a villain, and a powerful one, it’s easy to make him hateful and seem powerful by giving him an empire that’s badly governed or built on immoral foundations, such as slavery or the labour of ‘evil’ races like orcs and goblins. Our heroes, usually country boys or girls, have to destroy this empire from the ground up, and usually install a destined king in the old/corrupt ruler’s place. The story rarely follows what happens after this destined king is put in his place.

In his fantasy saga, The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu does precisely that. And what’s more, he does it in one sitting, using just the one book to tell a long, sprawling tale of a shattering empire, the heroes who ‘rescue’ it and the political games that come thereafter.

The Big Island of Dara is home to many races of people, their disparate lands (with distinct histories and cultures) only recently yoked together by the Empire of Xana, ruled by the ageing Mapidere. Rebellion simmers beneath the surface though, most notably in Cocru, one of the most martial of the islands and home to Mata Zyndu, descendent of a long line of marshals who fought for the king of Cocru and most recently resisted the campaigns of the Xana aggressors. So when Mapidere dies, it’s Mata Zyndu and his unlikely friend, the gangster and hustler Kuni Garu, who emerge as leaders of the revolt and the bid to destroy the Empire.

(The many lands of Dara)

The politics of the various kingdoms are complicated by supernatural factors: the gods take sides in the conflict, choosing their own champions. They are restricted in their interference, unable to take a very active role or directly harm/aid their chosen ones, but that just makes them all the more desperate to make sure the factions they favour come out on top.

What Liu does with this book is play with some of the old fantasy conventions: the upstart hero, the scheming Imperial servants, the beautiful, doomed princess and the cross-dressing female soldier who bests all her male opponents. But he sets it in a world so incredibly diverse that readers are sure to fall in love with it. I won’t lie—one of the many reasons I loved this book was because, unlike in many Western fantasy sagas, a character was, by not, by default, assumed to be white or of Caucasian heritage. Instead, the peoples of a Dara are a huge blend: olive-skinned, pale skinned, dark skinned, ‘ebony’ skinned…and they mingle and mix as part of one land.

Kuni is an immensely likeable character, the typical rogue with a heart of gold, scheming and beloved of his people, a pro at public relations in the manner that many upstart ‘common’ heroes tend to become. His wife, Jia, is a Lady Macbeth-like figure, pushing her husband along the path to ‘greatness’, and making the many sacrifices that are expected of her (and him) on the climb. Mata Zyndu is the typical martial hero, tall, imposing, the kind of man who births legends and who is heralded by prophecy. He comes closest to a fantasy stereotype, but what Liu does with him turns convention on its head.

My favourite characters remain Luan Zya, a tormented genius, and Rasina, an enchantress who works and shapes smoke, and can peer into the hearts of those around her. Liu creates brilliant characters who stick on in the imagination, no mean feat considering his book is quite an epic and hosts a huge number of them. Yet he endows each with character enough that they linger on, long after they’ve played their parts (some of them shorter than others). 

Liu’s book is an interrogation of politics, ideals and the people who sport them, who live and die for abstract causes like freedom and a ‘better world’. In that way, it is a lot like ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, but instead of the seven tomes Martin’s series is expected to take, Liu wraps up his world in one. His style is light, comic rather than weighted, but the statements he makes are no less profound for that. Whole years pass in the course of his narrative, and characters evolve in ways you might never expect.

CONCLUSION: It’s obvious that Ken Liu is a writer for whom his craft is very important, and he has not been overwhelmed by his world enough to stretch it out and hammer it unnaturally thin in an effort to spend more time in telling its story than he has to. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and look forward to more from Liu soon.

NOTE: This review was originally posted on Achala's blog

2 comments:

Darth Lolita said...

I can't wait to read this book. I heard about it a little while ago and was interested in it. I'm really glad to hear it's entertaining

Bob R Milne said...

Very well said. Liu does manage to accomplish a lot within the pages of a single volume, and does so with both style and flair. His writing reminded me a lot of Guy Gavriel Kay, but the subtle, often self-aware humor is what made it really stand out. Some inventive, imaginative stuff, with characters who were more than capable of carrying the novel.

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