One of the most hotly anticipated books of this year, The Grace of Kings easily lives up to the hype. In his debut novel Ken Liu delivers an amazing fantasy epic with a depth and style that is both familiar but also very unlike many other fantasy epics that I’ve read.
When describing this story to friends I’ve called it Game of Thrones based on Chinese history and mythology, and while I think that’s a convenient way to sum things up in a way that people can easily understand, it doesn’t really do justice to Liu’s work. The two series are similar in that they are both about the politics and grittiness of warfare involved in any war for power. However, that’s largely where the similarities end.
One thing that I think makes Liu’s novel stand out is the scope of its story. The first novel of this projected trilogy begins with the rebellion that destroys a rather newly established empire, goes through the succession wars that follow, and ends with the beginning of a new dynasty, a period of time that covers many years. But it’s not only the length of time covered that gives the novel such scope; it’s also the number of characters involved. While the story is really focused on two protagonists, Liu hops fluidly through the perspectives of a variety of characters, some who appear continuously and others who only have small roles to play, providing a truly full picture of everything that is going on in the conflict.
The two primary characters, around which everything else plays out, are Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu. Garu is a low-born man who rises from a school drop-out and street thug to the position of lordship, taking advantage of the chaos of the rebellion to grab power. He is inventive and intelligent, winning through kindness and ingenuity rather than brute force. Zyndu is the opposite. He is from a noble house that was displaced by the empire, and he seeks to return the world to its former glory of honor and nobility. He is a great warrior, unmatched on the battlefield, but also quick to anger and limited in his thinking.
In many ways the conflict boils down to a battle between traditional (represented by Zyndu) and modernity or progress (represented by Garu). However, the characters don’t didactically represent their ideals. Both are complex, full of inner turmoil as well as shortcomings. Zyndu’s pride and vision of what the world should be often leave him blind to realities, and where the world doesn’t fit with his view he often sees imperfections and the betrayals of lesser men (though to be fair his is legitimately betrayed on more than one occasion). Garu, on the other hand, is often seen as a benevolent ruler who is good with people and listens to the counsel of his advisers. These are good qualities to have, but Garu’s reliance on his friends also causes some trouble, as their advice is not always sound.
Both of these characters are sympathetic and heroic, but sometimes also frustrating, each in their own way. I found myself rooting for each at different points in time but also seeing the severity of some of their flaws and what leads (or could lead) to their undoing.
The world building for this story is also quite good. The land of Dara, occupied by the many warring Tiro States that Zyndu, Garu, and others come from, is full of technologies and customs that are interesting and unique. As far as the fantastical element goes, there are many different gods who inhabit the realm, all of whom have a stake in the war. While they cannot directly influence what is going on, each seems to have a champion that he or she favors and will try to do what they can to put their state in the most advantageous position.
If you want to read a little bit more about Liu’s approach to world building, he did a great interview, along with Kameron Hurley, about world building and the importance of researching history. Personally I thought it was a fascinating read, and I definitely recommend it to any budding fantasy writers out there.
The first installment of The Dandelion Dynasty trilogy is incredibly grand, and I can’t wait to see how it develops. If you are a fan of epic fantasy, then I would say that this is absolutely a must-read.