Sep 27, 2015

Book Review–The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu


I always enjoy Ken Liu’s work, whether it’s translations like The Three Body Problem or his own short work and it’s been interesting from a writers point of view to observe the difference in style between short works, translations and now a longer work in the form of The Grace of Kings.

To get a sense of what Liu presents I’ll quote an answer he gave on The Quillery blog:

The Grace of Kings is a re-imagining of the rise of the Han Dynasty in a new, secondary fantasy archipelago setting. This is a foundational narrative for Chinese literature much as the Iliad and the Odyssey are foundational narratives for the West.

By re-imagining this story as an epic fantasy using tropes and narrative techniques drawn from Chinese and Western epic traditions, I’m trying to create a new, blended aesthetic that transcends the Orientalism and colonial gaze that tends to hobble many “magical China” narratives.

The first book in The Dandelion Dynasty series, The Grace of Kings charts the rising fortunes of two friends Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu against an epic backdrop of an empire in decline. My knowledge of Ancient Chinese history is limited, perhaps even non-existent; the only points of reference are computer games set in the Warring States period and Wuxia films where the details seem to blur.  That being said there is a similar feel in the focus on heroes as agents of change, and rising and falling fortunes that have far reaching effects.

There has been some comparison made with the epic nature of A Song of Ice and Fire Series by Martin and here is where I feel that there’s a bit of a stylistic difference worth commenting on. 

Martin tells a tale by having a larger number of point of view characters and we get to witness the building of the world through their eyes.  This results in long books and lots of them. 

I think Liu achieves the same effect with a more limited focus on character, for sure there are a number of point of view characters but not as many and the world is sketched in a way that I want to say resembles the best creatively presented history books.

I had to borrow The Grace of Kings from the library and so can’t lay my hands on the text to give you an example. 

What I am trying to articulate, perhaps poorly, is that we are given a story and a comprehensive historical and cultural artefact.  To that end I didn’t find the writing as immersive in a narrative sense as I usually do with Liu’s short work, but I don’t particularly care because the world building balances that out.

There were other points of interest that tickled me intellectually: the inclusion of poetry that was not merely window dressing but that sat nicely in the cultural aesthetic that Liu was presenting, the presentation of interesting roles for women including but not limited to an extremely capable General, and some very light feminist commentary.

I enjoyed the tale and the world presentation.  It has elements that I am sure will tick a number of boxes for people, pitched battles, airships, and legendary heroes.  It’s fresh and I think Liu has managed to hit the targets he was aiming for in the quote above.

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