The Grace of Kings (2015): Ken Liu


The Dandelion Dynasty: Book I

Choosing books by their covers has sometimes come back to bite me, but not in this case. I’ve wanted to read this novel ever since I saw the simple and very elegant cover design, and the wait was worth it. Although the book has inevitably been dubbed the ‘Wuxia Game of Thrones‘, that doesn’t do just to its dense and labyrinthine originality. Political ambition is interwoven with martial glory, technological experiment and cunning, as two very different but equally brilliant men vie to define the future of a crumbling empire, and the gods themselves are tempted to break their own laws and interfere in the affairs of men. Indeed, so much happens in this book that attempting a summary is doomed to failure, but I’ll give it a go.

All life is a great game… In war there are no certainties.
If you aren’t willing to gamble, you’ll never win.

As a young man, Kuni Garu witnesses an assassination attempt on the elderly Emperor Malpidéré: a daring attack from the air which shows that, with imagination and courage, one man has the potential to change history. But it’s not a lesson he immediately profits from. After all, Kuni is a disappointment to his family. Despite their efforts to give him a good education, he has become nothing but a waster: a rake, a drinker, a frequenter of bad bars and worse company. But love can sometimes do what family disapproval can’t. And when Kuni falls for the well-bred Jia Matiza, he realises it’s time to grow up: a job as an imperial administrator sounds like a safe and unobjectionable path to security. But when the old Emperor dies, and is succeeded by his young son, the state passes into the hands of unscrupulous officials. Forced into banditry through an unfortunate train of events, Kuni must use all his wit to survive in a new and very uncertain world.

The young Mata Zyndu is a prodigy by any stretch of the word. The last in the line of the Zyndu Dukes, he has been raised in secret by his uncle. Physically imposing, at more than seven feet tall and with a figure to match, this strongman is growing into his prime. He itches for revenge against the Emperor Malpidéré, who executed the rest of the Zyndu family during his brutal conquest. When the Emperor dies and the realm begins to fragment under his successor, Mata sees a chance to avenge himself against the Imperial clan. He and his uncle set out to offer their services to a self-proclaimed King of Cocru, following their family’s great history as Marshals of Cocru. But Mata is about to discover a world he isn’t prepared for. Raised on tales of nobility and heroism, he is disillusioned to find that his new allies are prepared to consider using tricks and stratagems to win their war. Mata can’t endure this. As the greatest hero of his age, he is determined to restore the purity of battle: to fight, live and lead in an uncompromising, honourable fashion that will do justice to his heritage.

These two men, who find so much to value in the other, offer the seeds of the future. One of their emblems is the chrysanthemum, elaborate, ancient and noble; the other is the dandelion, cheerful, upstart and tenacious. Together they could represent the most powerful alliance the world has seen in generations – or the most formidable rivalry.

Liu’s world has already been dubbed ‘silkpunk’, which I presume is a Chinese cousin of steampunk. Although his characters largely wage war by traditional means, there are also fleets of Imperial airships, battle kites and (risking spoilers) underwater machines making use of rudimentary steam power. The technology behind these inventions is all carefully explained and the wonderful thing is that they grow naturally out of the world – indeed, you often see them being discovered. World-building is such a crucial part of any fantasy novel, and Liu triumphs here with a creation of such depth and richness that I think I’m going to have to read the book again to take it all in. The different states, their histories and traditions are all carefully described, and there is a vast cast of characters, with new arrivals appearing right up until almost the end. It can be hard to keep track, but it does all help to make the world of Dara a much more concrete and believable place.

The writing itself is rather matter-of-fact. While we see deeply into the minds of several main characters, the story covers an epic sweep both geographically and chronologically. Much of the time we meet people almost in passing, some of whom we get to know better later on, but some of whom have very fleeting appearances. Liu is the most ruthless writer I’ve come across for killing off his characters, and that includes George R.R. Martin. It’s not uncommon for someone on whom you’ve invested several chapters to be done away with in a sentence. Similarly, someone might be introduced with a detailed chapter that hints at them becoming a main character, only to be wiped out a few pages on. It’s unpredictable and brutal, and yet calm, as if it’s all being reported a little later in a court chronicle. There is something rather minimalist about the writing. The style took me a while to get into, and there were moments which jarred slightly (one character refers to her children a couple of times as ‘kids’, which felt odd in this articulate, courtly, poetic culture), but by the end I was hooked.

Even though this weighty tome brings one part of the story to a close, a sequel, The Wall of Storms, will be out in November with a similarly simple and appealing cover. Judging from the way this story ends, it looks as if we’re in for another dose of subtle courtly intrigue, and I’m very much looking forward to carrying on for the next instalment. Before finishing, I’d stress once more that a blog post really can’t do justice to the complexities of this story and so I’d urge you to give The Grace of Kings a go if you like your books served with a side helping of skulduggery, strategy and ambition.

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5 thoughts on “The Grace of Kings (2015): Ken Liu

  1. Heloise Merlin says:

    I know Ken Liu as writer of a large number of consistently brilliant short stories, and so was very curious about this his first novel. I was holding back on it because I’ve come to prefer reading a series in one go rather than have it stretched it out over years with possibly even annoying cliffhangers in between volumes. Judging by your review, however, The Grace of Kings seems to be (somewhat) self-contained? I might grab and read this earlier then if that’s the case.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Yes, it is pretty much self-contained. You can see where the author is setting up relationships which will probably develop in the sequel, but you could absolutely treat this as a story in and of itself. And after all, you wouldn’t have to wait that long for the sequel if you did want to read it, as it’ll be out in November. I do think you’d like this: it’s the kind of fantasy you can really get your teeth into!

      I’ve noticed a couple of his short stories collections since I started reading this, and am wondering whether to take the plunge. Not that it would be immediately anyway, considering the size of my TBR pile… 😉

      • Heloise Merlin says:

        Okay, seems like Grace of Kings will be going up a couple of places in my TBR pile, then. 😉 – I haven’t read any collection by him yet, but he is fairly regular contributor to Clarkesworld which I’ve subscribed to, and his stories there are always something to look forward to.

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