The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
Published: Saga Press (2015)
Series: Book 1 of the Dandelion Dynasty
Awards Nominated: Nebula Award
Awards Won: Locus Award for Best First Novel
“Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, and shapeshifting gods. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.” ~Amazon.com
This is Ken Liu’s first novel, and it kicks of the Dandelion Dynasty series. This is a series you definitely have to read in order. I’ve actually already read the second book, Wall of Storms, but I will try to keep my reactions to each book separate in the reviews.
The Grace of Kings is set in a Chinese-influenced fantasy empire composed of many islands. The story is concerned with the political and military conflicts that arise as the recently unified empire crumbles after the first Emperor’s death. It took me a long time to be fully drawn into the story. The only truly fantastical element in this first volume are the islands’ deities, who interfere in small ways to spur on their favorite mortals. These many deities were such a small part of the story that I was still having a hard time keeping them straight by the end of the novel. On top of this, the human characters also make quite a crowd, and it took a while for me to even get a good sense of them all. Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu might be the main characters, but there are some minor characters that I found even more compelling. By the end, a few of my favorites included the brilliant and unconventional general Gin Mazoti, Kuni’s wife Jia, and the unexpectedly excellent strategist Kindo Marana. It might have been slow in initially catching my interest, but by the end there was no question but that I would need to read the rest of the series.
Part of what I loved about the novel involves its willingness to meaningfully explore ideas related to the structure of society, the practice of power, and the idea of fate, as well as many other interesting topics. Mata and Kuni’s ideologies map mostly to aristocracy and meritocracy, respectively. Mata feels that nobility is an inheritable trait, and that the traditional status quo represents a ‘natural’ hierarchy that should be respected. Kuni, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to challenge societal conventions, and believes that anyone should be able to define their own place in life through their actions--just as he did. Their worldviews influence how they perceive each other, and how they each believe power should be wielded. I loved that neither of these characters were a ‘chosen one’, because the story does not embrace the idea of destiny. No one in the story fully knows what they’re doing, and they all can only make decisions based on their imperfect understanding of the world. This made for a chaotic story, but ultimately one in which I cared deeply about the decisions made by individuals.
I was also surprised by how much I was drawn in by the political and even military maneuvering. The novel felt like it had more of a nuts and bolts approach than most epic fantasies I’ve read. We get to see all of the small decisions that build or destroy a political figure, all the wise moves and mistakes they make as they accumulate or lose power. Similarly, the military tactics were detailed and creative. Aside from Mata, most of the powerful characters engage in intelligent military tactics and work to leverage whatever advantages they can find in unexpected ways. I especially enjoyed how they incorporate new ideas and new technologies, something that continues to be a draw in the next book in the series. In the end, this novel does feel like a complete story, but I was still eager to see what would happen after the close of Kuni and Mata’s story.
My Rating: 4.5/5
The Grace of Kings is an innovative and entertaining first book of an epic fantasy series, though it is heavy on epic and light on fantasy. It took a while to feel grounded in the world, with all the many deities and even more numerous mortal characters. Though it is set in a fictional world, some of the interesting social and political ideas feel quite relevant for our modern reality. I also loved the political maneuvering and the creative approach to war. By the end of the novel, I was pretty certain that I would read the rest of the series. In fact, I’ve already read the second book, and am waiting impatiently for the final book of the trilogy!