If subtle and sophisticated aren’t words which you associate with Epic Fantasy, you obviously haven’t yet read Ken Liu’s `The Grace of Kings’. This Silkpunk (the oriental equivalent of Steampunk) novel was published in 2015 and is Book One of `The Dandelion Dynasty’. It is just out in a paperback edition with rather small print, presumably designed to make a very long book look merely long (618 pages). The ebook version might be a more comfortable read. `The Grace of Kings’ is set in the Islands of Dara, a Fantasy realm which Ken Liu apparently co-created with his artist wife, Lisa Tang Liu.
For centuries Dara was divided into seven states, each with its own king, culture and patron deity. These quarrelsome rulers often went to war with each other over disputed territory. Then a King of Xana conquered the other states, killed or banished their ruling families and declared himself Emperor of the Seven Islands. As the story begins, Emperor Mapidere claims to preside over a new era of peace and unity but the people of his empire are suffering because of corrupt officials, heavy taxes, and vain-glorious building projects which cause the deaths of thousands of workers. When Mapidere dies, intrigues at court ensure that he is succeeded by a weak prince. Across the empire, strange prophecies encourage people to defy the government. Former royal families see a chance of getting their power and independence back. The deities of Dara watch events with interest but agree that none of them shall interfere directly in human affairs.
Caught up in the rebellion against the Xana Empire are two very different young men – Mata Zyndu and Kuni Garu. Mata has been living as a fisherman on the coast of Cocru but he is heir to a noble line of generals. He has unusual size and strength and Mata’s uncle, Phin, has brought him up to avenge the slaughter of the Zyndu Clan and `restore clarity and order’ to Dara. When a shepherd who belongs to the old royal line, is suddenly proclaimed King of Cocru, Mata and Phin fight valiantly on his behalf. Elsewhere in Cocru, farmer’s son Kuni Garu grows up in the city of Zudi. He is brilliant but lazy and seems destined to be an easy-going rogue but a wealthy young woman sees great potential in him. After they are married, Kuni tries to settle down as a minor official of the Empire but a twist of fate turns him into a bandit chief and then a rebel leader. When Kuni seeks help to liberate his home city, he meets Mata and the two become close friends.
In the early days of the rebellion five states manage to break away from the Empire, but then Xana appoints a more efficient commander-in-chief and the war begins to go against the rebels. Mata and Kuni become disillusioned with the bickering and incompetent rulers of the rebel states. Mata responds with ferocious military campaigns while Kuni and his advisors come up with a daring plan to strike at the imperial capital. Kuni’s success soon brings him into conflict with Mata. What began as a struggle for freedom turns into a ruthless contest for power. Ultimately, there can only be one winner.
I’m late with this recommendation because of illness but even when I was coughing and feverish this novel kept me enthralled. `The Grace of Kings’ seems very much a labour of love and it doesn’t follow the current rule that commercial fiction must consist of non-stop action and suspense. Something exciting does happen during the prologue but then Liu takes all the time he needs to establish his characters and their back-stories. He has created an intricate mosaic of a book and my brief summary can’t do justice to the full range of characters and subplots linked to the central duo. The story really gets going at the point where most Fantasy epics stop. The evil Empire is overthrown but what should replace it? Differing answers lead to painful conflicts and lost ideals. In the final two sections of the novel, there are plot-twists which made me gasp and personal tragedies which made me cry. Liu is terrific at battle scenes and seems to be a master of military strategy. Terrible things do happen in `The Grace of Kings’ – beheadings, burnings, drownings – but the violence is always described in a restrained way.
The elegance of Liu’s prose is one of the things which makes this novel stand out. Another is the colourful and original setting, which melds elements of Chinese and Polynesian culture, religion and history. Each of the seven island states has its distinctive features and the Lius are particularly good with landscapes, architecture and food. As in many ancient epics, shape-shifting gods and goddesses take sides in the human conflicts and bend the rules to help their favourites at crucial moments. In `The Grace of Kings’ though these interventions never absolve the humans from taking responsibility for their own choices and actions. The supernatural elements are sparingly used and Dara is a society in which war stimulates the development of technology. The warriors in this story fight on horseback with swords but they also use airships, submarines and explosives. Ironically, war is also shown as changing traditional gender-based roles and giving women new opportunities.
At first I feared that `The Grace of Kings’ might be flawed by a lack of strong female characters but there are some interesting and powerful women in the latter part of book, such as Kuni’s two wives, herbalist Jia and illusionist Risani, Gin, a street orphan who becomes a general and embroiderer, Mira, who speaks for all the families who have lost loved ones in the wars. The main focus of the novel though is on the two men who represent very different types of Fantasy hero – Mata the mighty warrior and Kuni the loveable trickster. Mata looks terrifying – he’s over eight feet tall and his eyes have double pupils – and he’s almost invincible in battle. He is proud, merciless and absolutely convinced of the rightness of his mission to restore the old order. In a lesser book, Mata would have been a monster but Liu makes us feel sorry for this unhappy loner who, unlike Kuni, finds it hard to understand or relate to other people. Kuni acknowledges that they are both idealists but says that Mata `wants to restore the world to a state that never was, I wish to bring it to a state that has not yet been seen.’
Charming Kuni constantly doubts himself and his ideas, which makes him more attractive to modern readers. He seems to be the plot’s `good guy’ and yet some of his decisions lead to terrible sufferings and betrayals. It is this ambiguity which makes the story so fascinating. `The Grace of Kings’ dramatizes two traditional questions – `Does the end justify the means’ and `Is an oppressive peace better than dangerous freedom? – and makes them seem more relevant than ever. If you are looking for something as thrilling as `Game of Thrones’ but more profound, do give this thoughtful epic a try. Until next time….