I really liked The Grace of Kings when I read it last year and said as much on my blog. In my review back then I noted the criticism levelled at the novel in regard to limited female representation – especially in the first half of the book. I was OK with it because when women do play a role in the novel – in the second half – it’s significant. Still it was a valid criticism. As important as the female characters are, having them barely say a word in the first half of the book while the men battle and strategise and angst and quip does seem lopsided. And it invites the question as to why women are marginalised until the plot needs them.
But that was The Grace of Kings. In The Wall of Storms Ken Liu doesn’t just address this gender problem he takes it outside and gives it a good thrashing. Of course the vagaries of publishing means that Ken Liu, who would have been near finished, if not revising the edits of the second novel when The Grace of Kings came out, isn’t truly reacting to the criticism. He’d already considered the role of women in the series and The Wall of Storms rather than rectify a problem is simply implementing a plan. Women are front and centre in this book. From the first page to the last it’s women who chart the destiny of the people of Dara.
I’m not going to summarise the plot. If you haven’t read the first book – and you should – it will make little sense. If you have read the first novel then all you really need to know is that The Wall of Storms takes place a decade or so after The Grace of Kings and sees Emperor Kuni attempting to implement his progressive agenda. One aspect of this, that explains the strong role of women in the novel, is providing women avenues to higher education and the public service, a move that has received its fair share of criticism. In amongst all this shenanigans are afoot as the question of which son will replace Kuni becomes a hot topic of debate and court politics. Machiavellian manipulations and betrayals ensue and that’s just the first half of this very long novel.
What’s wonderful about this book and the series in general is Liu’s devotion to philosophy. We get a great deal of information about the different schools of thought that form the foundation of Daran society. There are the Moralists, the Incentivists, the Fluxists and the Patternists and like all philosophy they provide guidance on how to live your life and how to govern by drawing examples from the natural world. The book is steeped in conversations about which movement / ideology best suits a society that’s hoping to break clear of its violent, oppressive past. And when Dara is invaded, that debate shifts to a discussion that attempts to distinguish colonialisation from invasion. I haven’t read a huge chunk of epic fantasy, but this deep dive into the mechanics of a just, well governed society feels like something different and new.
But the novel isn’t just high quality navel gazing. There’s plenty of battles, graphic violence, death and awful tragedy. The second half of The Wall of Storms has a body count that would make GRRM rather proud.
And while The Wall of Storms is about three hundred pages too long – I hold the view that nothing needs to be longer than 90,000 words, but that’s a discussion for another – for the most part you don’t notice the length. This is immersive fiction at its most entertaining with a beautifully rendered world and characters who begin life as broad archetypes but develop into complex people. If you are looking for some top drawer big fat fantasy with a strong philosophical bent then I heartily recommend the Dandelion Dynasty.