Review: The Grace of Kings
THE GRACE OF KINGS (Amazon) by Ken Liu was a pure pleasure to read. Dubbed the “Wuxia GAME OF THRONES” by Wesley Chu, this debut novel is a grand adventure that speaks of Liu’s considerable talent. It’s the type of novel capable of bridging the gap between “pulp” and “literature,” a story that is equal parts fun and cerebral. THE GRACE OF KINGS is an early contender for best fantasy of 2015 and when awards season rolls around again I anticipate it garnering plenty of nominations.
For those unaware of Wuxia, it is a broad genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. Some notable examples of the tradition include films such as CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (Amazon) and HERO (Amazon), and games such as Bioware’s JADE EMPIRE (Amazon), which is one of my favorite RPGs of all time. I suspect/hope that THE GRACE OF KINGS will further raise awareness of the genre.
Here’s Amazon’s synopsis: 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 shape-shifting 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.
THE GRACE OF KINGS is set in the fictional islands of Dara, once divided into seven separate warring kingdoms only to be united by an ambitious king from the island of Xana in hopes of ending the endless conflicts. Dara is a rich and exotic setting, worlds apart from the pseudo-European fantasies many readers have grown accustomed to. Each of the nations-turned-territories has unique customs, foods, and history. Liu presents a world of beauty and tragedy. Under Imperial rule the people do not prosper. Bureaucrats govern in place of the nobles, heavy taxation robs the common folk of their wages, and laborers conscripted from the general population toil away on the Emperor’s vanity projects. In the midst of such misery the seeds of rebellion are sown.
It’s possible that THE GRACE OF KINGS is even more a “game of thrones” than GAME OF THRONES is. A heretical statement, surely, but let me explain before you lob off my head and place it on a spike alongside Ned’s. The rebellion against the Empire is a tangle of shifting loyalties. Commoners become heroes rising to challenge their oppressors. Bandits become dukes become kings. Tax collectors become great generals. Exiled nobles return to reclaim their inheritance. War sweeps across Dara and the balance of power shifts so fluidly that it’s a miracle Liu is able to manage it all. And yet Liu not only manages the complicated politics, he presents it in a manner that is clear and comprehensible.
I was slightly concerned going into THE GRACE OF KINGS that the writing would be dense and it would be difficult to keep track of all the unfamiliar names. I was still excited to read it (the reviews are all glowing) but maybe just a little apprehensive. I needn’t have worried. THE GRACE OF KINGS is accessible and engaging reading and I imagine this could be credited to Liu’s practice writing short fiction. The novel is heavy on exposition and light on dialogue. This will turn off some readers but it shouldn’t. It’s a captivating experience, akin to being related folk tales as a child. The characters are larger than life and their exploits are legendary.
The characters are far more complex than they first appear. There are no stainless heroes or irredeemable villains. There’s no true evil to be found in THE GRACE OF KINGS beyond the temptation of power. Characters you grow to love will act in ways that break your art and even their foes display admirable qualities. The story primarily focuses on Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, two very different men that share a special bond, but Liu provides readers the opportunity to get to know a significant portion of the supporting cast. Most of the major characters are given a chapter of their own, simultaneously progressing the plot and providing insight into their life story. I was never bored of a character or impatient to move on.
War is a prominent aspect of THE GRACE OF KINGS. There is death and destruction on a large scale. The fighting is mainly viewed through the eyes of those in command rather than those on the front lines so it’s too extremely bloody. War is conducted on foot and horseback, from silk-draped airships and tethered battle-kites. Victories are achieved through cunning and courage, defeats are dealt as a result of cowardice, arrogance, and ignorance. As in any true depiction of warfare chance plays a role in the fortunes of armies. What I appreciated most about this aspect of THE GRACE OF KINGS is the evolution of tactics, strategies, and weapons as the war grinds on. I feel as though most fantasy war stories are stagnant in this regard.
War may be prominent but THE GRACE OF KINGS touches on many topics. Liu examines the responsibilities of rulers to those they govern. He warns of the corrupting influence of power that can sway even the staunchest defenders of justice. He writes of legacy and family. He champions the virtues of friendship and trust and explains how, in their absence, mistrust and paranoia can take root. Liu challenges preconceptions of romance and faithfulness. THE GRACE OF KINGS is a fun read but those looking for more than entertainment will find that within its pages as well.
Were THE GRACE OF KINGS a foreign film you would want to watch it with the subtitles on so as not to tarnish the beauty of the words with bad English dubbing. I cannot recommend this wonderful, grand, and unexpected fantasy enough.
- Recommended Age: 14+
- Language: The vocabulary is rather clean
- Violence: Lots of fighting and death, but very little gore or gratuitous violence
- Sex: Mentioned but not described