The Grace of Kings
Saga Press, 2015.
“Though I am declared victorious today, who knows in ten generations whether your name or mine will be brighter? You died a grace of kings at my hand, but doubt will haunt me till the day I die.”
Ken Liu has some pretty high expectations to meet with his debut novel. The only author to win the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award with the same work, his magnificent 2011 short story “The Paper Menagerie”, the prolific Liu is widely recognized as one of the finest voices in sci-fi and fantasy. That story and others will be collected in the upcoming The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, which is available next year.
In fact, if you haven’t read “The Paper Menagerie”, go do it now. It’s free, it won’t take too long, and I’ll still be here when you’re done.
Okay, now that you’ve read it, you understand why the fantasy community has been anxiously awaiting this novel.
And Liu delivers in stunning form.
The Grace of Kings, which kicks off the “Dandelion Dynasty” trilogy, is an elegant adaptation of ancient Chinese history filled with mighty warriors, sly bandits, cruel despots and capricious gods, set in a world filled with airships, submersible whale-ships and battle kites which Liu dubs “silk-punk”.
Fans of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” should appreciate the expansive historical retelling, with world-shaking events and Machiavellian machinations. But that’s where the comparison ends.
The Grace of Kings reads less like Martin’s bloody and fantastical version of the War of the Roses than a national epic like the Edda or the Aeneid, a grand history filled with larger-than-life characters who stride the world like heroes of old, marking their place in history with mighty deeds and big-ass swords.
Based on the fall of China’s Qin Dynasty and the rise of the Han Dynasty, The Grace of Kings is set in the island empire of Dara, ruled by the despotic Emperor Mapidéré, the cruel unifier who crushed the population under the weight of his taxes and expansive public works projects (he is modelled after Qin Shi Huang, the third century BCE conqueror who unified China and built the Great Wall).
The novel starts with two boys from vastly different backgrounds, the peasant student Kuni Garu and the banished noble Mata Zyndu, witnessing the Imperial procession as it passes through their respective communities. Kuni witnesses an assassination attempt which leads to the brutal repression of his hometown, while Mata sees the aged emperor and recognizes his destiny to bring Mapidéré’s downfall.
From there The Grace of Kings alternates between the two as they grow and evolve, Mata becoming a mighty warrior while Kuni becomes a petty gangster. But their lives become inextricably linked when the aged emperor dies and his simpleton son is placed on the throne. As rebellion and civil war sweep the empire, the two find themselves unlikely allies and soon the closest of friends. Dubbed the dandelion and the chrysanthemum, Kuni and Mata, the bandit diplomat and the ruthless warrior, soon drive the imperial army to defeat.
Their friendship is torn asunder, however, when Kuni succeeds in capturing the emperor while Mata is off destroying the remnants of his army. Soon Mata has crowned himself leader of the new Hegemony and banished Kuni to a distant island to live out the rest of his days. The wily Kuni, however, escapes his island prison and is soon leading an army opposing Mata.
Mata and Kuni’s struggle is the stuff of legend and Liu’s writing carries the weight of a historical epic within its elegant prose and grandiose story. The Gods of Dara watch from heaven, casting their lots on one side or the other, interfering with the mortal lives and playing favorites. Kuni and Mata are pawns in this ineffable game (indeed, with Terry Pratchett’s recent death I was reminded of the first “Discworld” book, The Colour of Magic, with its cosmic dice game featuring Rincewind as the unwitting pawn).
But not being familiar with Chinese epics, history or mythology, I have to draw on what I do know, and that is the Iliad. The meddling Gods, the larger-than-life heroes, the war that provides the center of the story, this archetypal story may have an Eastern flavor and setting, but it is immediately recognizable to this Western reader.
The crafty Kuni, whose victories are often due to his guile, becomes an analog to Odysseus, while the mighty Mata, an eight-foot tall berserker who leaves a trail of corpses in the wake of his giant broadsword “The Ender of Doubts”, assumes the role of Achilles.
Liu even works the Homeric epithet “wine-dark sea” into The Grace of Kings.
But while I could recognize the epic themes that form the basis of Western literature, the setting was delightfully unfamiliar. The product of a ’70s and ’80s American education, I never studied Chinese history. In fact when I picked the novel up I wondered if it was some sort of allusion to Maoism, especially in the scene with Mapidéré burning of books and killing of scholars. I didn’t know how much ancient history was behind the story and was pleasantly shocked to see how much he drew from ancient Chinese history. So Liu also inspired me to study a little history in the process, much like I did after reading his translation of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem.
And throughout this glorious story, Liu’s beautiful, yet economical, prose shines, in humble and unlikely places like this scene where Kuni’s wife Jia describes the strength of the dandelion.
“It is hardy and determined, adaptable and practical. The flower looks like a chrysanthemum, but it’s much more resourceful and far less delicate. Poets may compose odes about the chrysanthemum, but the dandelion’s leaves and flowers can fill your belly, its sap cure your warts, its roots calm your fevers… It is a versatile and useful plant people can rely on.
And it’s playful and fun.”
That’s last part is pretty apt. The Grace of Kings is grand, mythic and epic, but Liu’s “silk-punk” world of trickster gods and giant horned whales is also a delight.
The Grace of Kings is available on Tuesday, April 7.