Monday, March 27, 2017

Review: The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu

The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu
Published: Saga Press, 2016
Series: Book 2 of the Dandelion Dynasty

The Book:

“Kuni Garu has conquered Dara, but now he must rule.  As Emperor Ragin, he finds that it is not easy to realize his vision of what a society should be. Politics is a tricky game that can make enemies out of allies, and his young Empire will soon enough be facing the “wall of storms”, the transfer of power to his selected heir.

There is a literal wall of storms around Dara as well, and an unexpected threat--an invasion force from another Empire--passes through it at a very delicate time.  Kuni, his family, his friends, and his growing children will face this threat with the abilities that they have to offer. Prince Timu offers his morality, Prince Phyro his strength, and Princess Thera her agile mind.” ~Allie  

I’d been looking forward to reading this novel since I finished the first of the series, and was excited to come across it at my local library!

My Thoughts:

When I was reading the first novel of the series, it took me a while to warm up to all the mortal characters and to get a sense of the pantheon of Dara.  This time, my prior knowledge of the world made it much easier to jump right into the story, and familiar characters served as an emotional bridge to the next generation. Some recurring characters changed in unexpected ways. For instance, the casual Kuni Garu accepted the need for formality and ceremony in establishing an enduring Empire, and his wife Jia really took her role as a politician to heart.  Of the new characters, my favorites by far were Zomi and Thera.  Zomi is a young disabled woman from a rural, poverty-stricken home, and her rise as a brilliant scholar begins with an apprenticeship to Luan Zya.  Princess Thera’s life is one of privilege and luxury, but also of dissatisfaction with the path she assumes is intended for her. Her intelligence and determination ensure her life will be anything but boring.  

There is so much going on in The Wall of Storms, and so many ideas (social, political, scientific, cultural) that could be discussed at length. Today, I’m going to restrict my comments to a few topics that fascinated me the most, nation-building and the advancement of science.  By the end of The Grace of Kings, I was pretty sure that Kuni Garu was the best and most just of available options for leading a new Empire.  Now, it’s clear that building a good Empire, for all its people, is a lot more complicated than just having a decent person at the top.  Kuni is stuck between the past and the future, with some of his key positions held by commoners and others held by traditional aristocrats.  His fragile power is held together by a combination of personal loyalties and the sense of a new status quo that he is attempting to establish.  In a similar way, his effort to develop a merit-based “national exam” suffers from the unconscious biases of traditional scholars, and it seems like everything he does to balance the playing field brings new problems.  It was interesting to read about the intersection of Kuni’s ideals and the realities of governing.

As for science, I absolutely adore stories featuring intelligent people working out fundamental physical principles in fictional societies.  I think that might be my favorite thing in fiction books, period, and it doesn’t seem to come up in all that many of them.  Kuni’s government is one that values research and innovation, and progress becomes crucial when they face a powerful invading force.  I loved watching the scientists of Dara slowly uncover electromagnetism, which they called “silkmotic” power.  There’s also some particularly entertaining biological investigation of unusual fantastical creatures, which one might call dragons.  In addition to the process of discovery, I enjoyed seeing how they would harness their knowledge for practical use.  Given the circumstances, most efforts were for scientific advances that could be used in the military defense of Dara.  Creative military strategy looks like it is going to be a constant in this trilogy, but I feel like The Wall of Storms really raised the bar in that area. I am both excited and desperately impatient to see what Liu has in store for the conclusion!
My Rating: 5/5
While I enjoyed The Grace of Kings, The Wall of Storms is the book that has won me over as a fan of the Dandelion Dynasty series.  The first book in the series was about winning the Empire, and this one is about governing and protecting it. Tradition and history can get in the way of trying to push a society towards progress, and uncomfortable compromises might sometimes be the cost of stability.  With political threats from within and invasion from without, there was plenty of tension and action. I also loved the parts of the book about scientific advancement, and seeing how new technology is implemented strategically in the battlefield.  There’s so much more I could say about how the novel portrays different approaches to politics, managing dissent and rebellion, and the way cultures grow and change.  In short, it was an amazing book, and I am eager to see how things will turn out in the final volume!

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