An Immersive and Heartbreaking (If Slightly Problematic) Epic Fantasy – A Review of The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

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I try very hard not to fall for the hype when it comes to novels. I’ve fallen for it quite a few times, expecting something wonderful only to find something that’s really just mediocre or is out-and-out disappointing. A good example of this was when I picked up Mark Alder’s Son of the Morning, which had positive ratings almost everywhere I looked, and had a blurb that stoked my interest enough to make me want to read it. Unfortunately, the novel turned out to be very deeply flawed—practically broken, as far as I’m concerned, and as I was reading it I wondered how something so poorly written could escape into the world at large. I also wondered how other people could be so blind to the flaws I saw in it, which I felt were obvious to anyone who liked to read.

Sometimes, though, there are books that are hyped left, right, and centre, and truly deserve that hype. There was plenty of hype, for instance, around J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy from the moment she announced it, but I decided to stay away from it until I’d received confirmation that it was worth spending my time on. As it turned out, it was a book worth reading—nothing like the Harry Potter books, certainly, but it did prove Rowling had range, and was capable of writing eminently readable books that had nothing to do with the series that made her famous in the first place. That’s a lot more than I can say for some other writers.

But sometimes—very rare times—I buy into the hype of a novel almost from the very beginning, and it actually manages to live up to that hype. A good example would be Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which swept most of the major sci-fi/fantasy awards it was nominated for, and for good reason: it combines the best aspects of sweeping space opera with complex themes and excellent characterisation.

When I found out last year, via my friend Hope, that Ken Liu’s first novel was due to arrive in 2015, I was thoroughly excited. I’m familiar with Liu’s work as a short story writer (there are quite a few examples published in magazines like Clarkesworld and the like); his prose is elegant and poetic, telling stories that mix East Asian mythology and history with very contemporary themes. I was looking forward to seeing if that style would carry over into his longer work, as well as finding out what he could do when given plenty of room to develop a story.

As it turns out, Liu’s style doesn’t exactly carry over, but he does still tell a very good story.

The Grace of Kings begins with a parade. Emperor Mapidéré of the Xana Empire is touring his realm, and this parade through the conquered nation of Cocru is a way of strengthening Xana’s position as the nation that unified all others under one rule. Watching the parade are two teenagers: Kuni Garu and Rin Coda. They’ve decided (or rather, Kuni’s decided) to cut class in order to see the parade, and so far, it’s turning out to be worth it: the parade is a display of all the best that Mapidere’s newly-built empire has to offer, and there’s plenty to see that two small-town boys would not get to see unless they left home. But when an assassin tries to kill the Emperor in the middle of the parade, Kuni learns something about the world that will shape the course of the rest of his life.

Not too long afterwards, on the island of Tunoa, the Imperial Procession wends its way past the town of Farun, and is also witnessed by a teenager, but accompanied by an older man: Mata Zyndu, and his uncle, Phin. They are scions of the once-prominent Zyndu Clan, who were the Marshals of Cocru until they, and their country, fell to Mapidéré’s forces. Mata—marked for greatness (or so Phin believes) by his extraordinary double-pupiled eyes—is determined to restore the glory of his clan, his country, and the old ways of life that Mapidéré’s conquest eliminated. He believes it is his destiny, and he will stop at nothing until he accomplishes it.

As the years go by and the discontent in the empire grows into outright rebellion, Kuni and Mata’s paths cross. That crossing leads them onwards to accomplishing deeds both great and dark, to people both good and wicked, as they both do what they think they must—even when it means they must turn against each other.

One of the most interesting and most enjoyable things about this novel is how so much of it feels familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I attribute this to the fact that Liu draws heavily from Eastern and Western literature, and combines elements from both in a manner that reads seamlessly, but tugs at the reader’s strings in unfamiliar ways.

A clear and immediate example of this are the two main characters, Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu. Mata is destined for greatness—indeed, is physically marked for it:

Among the ancient Ano, it was said that those with double pupils had the special attention of the gods. Most such children were blind from birth. …

Phin moved his hand in front of the baby, uncertain if he was blind. Mata’s eyes did not move, but then the baby turned and focused his eyes on Phin’s.

Among the double-pupiled, a rare few had the sight of an eagle, and it was said that they were destined for greatness.

There are plenty such heroes in both Eastern and Western classic literature, but the one that stands out the most (in my mind, anyway) is Achilles from Homer’s Iliad. Like Achilles, Mata is aware that he is destined for great things, and while he’s not quite sure how or when that destiny will come to him, he knows he must be ready for it. Thankfully, his uncle Phin (who raised Mata to believe that he had a great destiny ahead of him) has done all he can to make sure his nephew is ready; it’s just a matter of waiting and watching for the right moment.

If Mata is Achilles, then Kuni is definitely Odysseus, even if he doesn’t look like it, at first:

[Kuni] was a good drinker, talker, and brawler, and soon he became close to all sorts of disreputable characters in Zudi: thieves, gangsters, tax collectors, Xana soldiers from the garrison, girls from the indigo houses, wealthy young men who had nothing better to do than stand around all day on street corners looking for trouble—as long as you breathed, had money to buy him a drink, and enjoyed dirty jokes and gossip, Kuni Garu was your friend.

Initially, it might seem that Kuni is just a good-for-nothing jokester: a side-character, perhaps, to stand witness to the greatness that Mata Zyndu appears destined for. But that’s not Kuni’s destiny: he’s on the path towards something greater, but that path will be very different from Mata’s. Unlike Mata, who is a hero from the very beginning, Kuni grows into his role, in a manner that’s not immediately obvious to the reader.

This is where Liu shows that he’s not drawing his influences solely from Western literature. One can easily compare Mata to Achilles right from the get-go, but it takes time for the reader to start seeing Odysseus in Kuni, mostly because the story arc he undergoes has more similarities to Chinese classics like The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marsh than to anything Homer wrote.

Another similarity that The Grace of Kings shares with classic Chinese novels is its structure. The story hops from the point-of-view of one character to another, focusing primarily on Kuni and Mata, though other characters do get to hold the reins of the story from time to time. Every other chapter or so, the story jumps away from any of the main characters, and focuses instead on another part of the world, and on other characters and events. These chapters read almost like self-contained short stories within the novel’s larger framework: they detail certain events happening in a given area of the world, focusing on their own set of protagonists and antagonists and having their own central conflict. What ties these chapters back into the main story, though, is that these characters and events have an impact on everything else that’s going on around them: either the characters (if they survive the events of the chapter that introduced them) become supporting characters in the main story arc, or the events that occurred in that chapter are mentioned as influences on the ongoing events of the main story arc.

This tendency to play a little fast and loose with the plot’s linearity is one of the things that makes The Grace of Kings so very interesting to read—but it’s also one of the things that can turn some readers off. Because the novel doesn’t appear to have a tight central focus, especially in the first third, it can be easy for readers to get lost. It also doesn’t help that many of the names aren’t very memorable at first, and the fact that there are quite a lot of those names thrown at the reader from the very beginning makes things even more confusing. It’s especially difficult to keep place-names straight: it’s easier with characters, because a reader can associate names with certain personalities (if not certain faces, if the reader is good at making up faces to go with names), but places are another thing entirely. Like many fantasy novels The Grace of Kings has a map, but it’s irritating to have to flip back and forth between the map and the story, just to remind oneself about where the action is happening at any given moment.

Despite its problems, though, this is a wonderful, exquisite read. There are a lot of characters (which some readers might find irritating because it can be hard to keep them all straight), but none of them feels like a cardboard cutout. It’s easy to unequivocally love a character, or unequivocally hate them, but I find it more interesting when a character makes me feel more ambivalent about them than I thought. For example, I really like Kuni, but he makes some questionable decisions in the novel that make me look askance at him. The same can be said for Mata: I don’t really like him, but there are moments when I really, really like him because of something he’s said, done, or even not said or done.

I’m also exceedingly fond of the female characters in this novel. There’s not a lot of them, especially in the first third of the book, but once they start arriving they are a very fun and interesting bunch. Unfortunately, most of them don’t really get to grow very much in this novel, which is disappointing because I would have loved to see these fantastic women grow under such challenging circumstances as the ones presented in this novel. However, there are hints at the end of the novel that indicate these women will be able to spread their wings even further in the second novel, so I’m hoping Liu devotes time to developing the amazing women he’s introduced in The Grace of Kings, because it would be an utter waste if he doesn’t.

The novel’s true saving grace, though, is how immersive it is. Once (or if) the reader overcomes issues with Liu’s writing style, it’s easy to get lost in the world he’s created. Part of it is the characters themselves: they feel human enough that it’s easy to sympathise with their concerns and troubles, and those troubles and concerns are ones that at least some readers will be able to relate to. The other part is the themes: they touch upon a whole host of ideas, but the central theme—of revolution, and what comes after—is a very contemporary one for most readers. All revolutions begin with the need to topple an old, oppressive regime, but what happens after that? Once the old regime is gone, who or what takes its place? Those are the questions both the characters and the reader must confront throughout the novel, and just like in real life, there are no easy answers.

Overall, The Grace of Kings is a beautiful, immersive, heartwrenching read, but it’s not the easiest read to get into. Liu’s style might be elegant and poetic in his short stories, but it feels a little clunky in this novel: there’s a lack of focus in the first third of the novel that might turn readers off from the very beginning, though things do tighten up a bit by the middle portion of the novel. This lack of focus isn’t helped by the fact that there are plenty of names being tossed around; it’s fairly easy to keep track of the characters, but keeping track of places is another story entirely, and it’s irritating for a reader to have to keep flipping back and forth between the novel itself and the included map just to confirm where things are happening.

However, if readers are able to look past that initial clunkiness, they will be rewarded with a deep, immersive story, populated by characters who are beautifully, fatally human; and deeper themes and ideas that echo issues currently troubling us today. The ending is equally satisfying: no homicide-inducing cliffhangers here, but there is the promise for more. It’s a good thing Liu’s writing a sequel, because there’s lots more story left in the world he’s built, and I’m eager to see what’s in store for it, and for everyone in it.

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