The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
I’ve decided to republish my reviews of Thomas Disch’s novels. Back in 2009 (was it really 7 years ago?) in preparation for a talk on Disch at the venerable Nova Mob, I read all his novels and collections – or at least those I could source – and discussed them on my LiveJournal page (when LJ was thing). The reviews vary considerably in quality – I’d like to think my writing has improved since then – even so other than some minor edits I intend to republish them unchanged.
I’m motivated by a desire for the genre world not to forget Thomas Disch. There was a time when he was one of the most important voices in our field – both in terms of his novels and his criticism – and I’d like to remind people that his work, especially his early novels, were groundbreaking in how they approached and commented on the SF field (Algis Budrys’ thoughts aside). He was also a very political writer, and I’m sure he would have been both horrified, fascinated and opinionated at the rise of Trump and the American alt-right.
So starting from next week I’ll publish these reviews on a Wednesday or Thursday. I hope you enjoy them. But mostly I hope you go out and buy a novel by Thomas Disch (sadly, most likely second-hand).
OK, I’ll admit it, I was disappointed when I heard that Ken Liu’s début novel would be the first book in an epic fantasy series. For a writer whose short fiction I’ve loved since the publication of “Tying Knots” in Clarkesworld in 2011, I’d expected something more ambitious, more literary, more character focussed. So rather than rush out and buy The Grace of Kings when it was published, I decided to wait and see if it was nominated for an award. (Which, thankfully, it was).
I’ve now finished The Grace of Kings and have given myself a mental kicking in the head. Because while Liu hasn’t subverted, revolutionised or game-changed the epic fantasy genre, The Grace of Kings exhibits all of his strengths, the ability to write compelling stories that are about complicated people. Even when The Grace of Kings is at its loudest, large-scale battle scenes with thousands of gory violent deaths, there’s still, paradoxically, an intimacy to his writing.
What does set The Grace of Kings apart from your average epic fantasy is its non-European setting. The island world of Dara is clearly Asian influenced, but it’s only because Liu confirms it at the end of the novel (and in interviews he’s given elsewhere) that I was aware the influence is more directly Ancient Chinese history and more importantly its literary tradition. It’s a culture and history and mythology that I have scant knowledge of and so I can’t say whether Liu’s omniscient third person narrator succeeds in mimicking the timbre and tone of ancient Chinese folktales and fables. What I can say is that it’s immediately engaging.
There’s a broad sweep to the novel as Liu tells the story of two men – Kuni Garu, a cheeky bandit who improvises his way out of situations and Mata Zyndu, a giant of a man who finds pleasure in war and cleaving to the old ways – and their fight against the overbearing and repressive Xana Empire. Both Kuni and Mata see the world differently and while they initially respect each other’s perspectives this difference ultimately creates a schism between the two especially when the Xana Empire is overturned and Mata’s awesome exploits – he essentially takes on massive armies single-handedly – sees him catapulted to the top job – the ultimate ruler of Dara.
The novel deftly and with great storytelling verve explores issues of brotherhood, of allegiance to family, of tradition and honor and most important the clashing of ideals. Mata wants to go back to the old ways where everyone knew their place and people acted with honor and dignity. Kuni is more of a socialist, understanding that no matter who is in power the little people suffer. I enjoyed how Liu expanded and developed this aspect of the novel. These ideologies aren’t complex, but they act as a jump off point for Liu to seriously discuss the notion of governance, what it is to be a good and just ruler. It’s different to the political machinations you might find in other fantasy series, which are more about who can be the most Machiavellian. There are elements of this in The Grace of Kings; Kuni is always trying to outthink his opponent – whether it’s the former Emperor or Mata – but once you cut away all the clever plans and brilliant strategies this is a book about developing societies, communities, dynasties where the ruler doesn’t have to employ fear to ensure that his – or her – word is followed.
The Grace of Kings has been criticised for having limited female representation. This is certainly true for the first half where the only substantial female voice is Kuni’s wife Jai (she happens to be my favorite person in the novel). However, representation expands as the story progresses and as woman, including Jai, begin to play a significant role in overthrowing Mata’s tyrannical rule. This is exemplified by Gin, a woman with a brilliant strategic mind who Kuni makes his General to take on Mata. And it’s in the second half where Liu directly addresses and critiques the concern of invisibility, ancient fables and traditions where women are often missing from the narrative. Of course the appearance of Gin and Jai and the other wonderful female characters in the novel doesn’t address the question as to why Liu keeps them back until later, why women aren’t better represented in the first half of the novel.
I’m not a big fan of epic fantasy or trilogies or multi-volume series. But what I’m learning is that when they’re in the hands of an excellent writer, one who has an understanding of pacing, of style of character and of theme, a writer who is drawing from a rich and complex tradition, then please sign me up. I want to be on this ride.