Things Must Break to Become Stronger – A Review of The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu

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When it comes to series, especially dense, long-running fantasy series, I am always worried that the next book will not live up to the ones that came before it. I call it “middle book syndrome”, from the notion that the middle (i.e. second) book in a trilogy is generally not as good as the first or the third. The best writers try to avoid this, of course, but they do sometimes fall victim to it – my most recent experience was with The Obelisk Gate, the second book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy.

However, when a writer gets the pace just right, it is possible to avoid this issue in the second or even succeeding books (though I’ve yet to read a series wherein this does not happen at all). There have been more than a few authors who’ve managed to do this (including Jemisin: her book The Broken Kingdoms is the second in her Inheritance Trilogy and is my personal favourite in the entire series), and it always makes me happy when I encounter an author who can sustain the strength of their series into the second book, and hopefully into the succeeding books of their series.

When I picked up The Grace of Kings in 2015, it set the tone for the rest of Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series: an epic story of love, war, and betrayal, featuring brilliantly-rendered characters, all told in a way that combines the best of Homer, Luo Guangzhong, and Shi Nai’an. In my review for the book I praised it for its storytelling and themes, hoping that Liu would build upon them in the coming books. I also voiced the hope that the women would be given a chance to shine, since there were quite a few of them in The Grace of Kings but it always seemed like they were never really given a big-enough opportunity to really spread their wings as characters.

While I highly doubt that Liu read my review and took my recommendations to heart, it certainly feels that way regardless, because The Wall of Storms, the second book in the Dandelion Dynasty series, delivers all of the above, and more.

The Wall of Storms continues a few years after the ending of The Grace of Kings. Kuni Garu has brought peace to Dara, and rules it as Emperor Ragin, with Jia and Risana at his side. He is assisted by the many friends and allies he made during the Chrysanthemum-Dandelion War, many of whom he has raised to the nobility and granted important positions in his government. But not all are pleased with the peaceful state of Dara, and there are those would like to destabilise it, thus weakening Kuni’s still-uncertain grasp on the reins of power. To hold together his quickly-fraying empire, he sends his children – Prince Timu, Princess Théra, and Prince Phyro – out into the world, not only to project the strength of the Dandelion Throne, but also to help him in deciding who should be his heir.

In the meantime, Luan Zya, the greatest mind in all of Dara, crosses the seas in search of Emperor Mapidéré’s legendary exploratory fleet. What he finds is not what he expects – and instead, rouses a threat against Dara that his friends and allies are ill-prepared to counter.

In my review of The Grace of Kings, I said that Liu’s storytelling reminded me of a combination of Homer’s epics and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. I made this comparison partly because of the similarities the main characters Mata Zyndu and Kuni Garu had to the protagonists of Homer’s epics (Mata to Achilles, and Kuni to Odysseus), though the overall style and narrative had more in common with Luo Guangzhong’s work. The narrative is not straightforward; it leaps back and forth between various time periods and characters – something which may present a problem for some readers, since it can be difficult to keep various characters and place-names straight. However, as I mentioned in my review, readers who persevere will be rewarded for their patience with a sprawling, epic story.

The same remains true for The Wall of Storms, with two significant alterations. First, instead of two central characters around whom all the other characters move, with occasional forays into the points-of-view of other characters, The Wall of Storms features a handful of prominent characters, each with their own important plot lines. Some readers might be worried that this narrative will be even more confusing than The Grace of Kings, but that is not the case. Since Liu is no longer as burdened with world-building as he was in the first book, the narrative flow is tighter, making it much easier to read – this, despite the fact that, like The Grace of Kings, the story is told from different points of view, and even set in different time periods, with entire chapters functioning the same way flashback sequences do in movies.

But the most important alteration is that almost all the important characters are women. As I mentioned earlier, the one thing I thought lacking in The Grace of Kings was the presence of female characters – not that they were absent, because they were there, but that they were not as prominent in the narrative as I wish they were. The same absolutely cannot be said of The Wall of Storms, where the plot is practically dominated by the women, who also (happily) develop amazing character arcs that are interesting and heartbreaking to read about. What I like the most is that none of them is a “good” or “bad” person; they are all people, with their own motivations and reasons for doing what they do. The reader might not necessarily agree with what a character is doing, but said reader would be hard-pressed to say that the character did not have her reasons for her choices and actions.

What makes this even better is that those actions have immense bearing on the plot – indeed, it might be said that they are the plot’s driving force. If, in The Grace of Kings, most of the important decisions and actions were made by men, The Wall of Storms is driven primarily by the actions – or inaction – of the female characters. This is both delightful and refreshing in an epic fantasy series, which as a rule seem to be driven by the actions and decisions of the male characters. Even better, none of them is clearly a hero, or clearly a villain; they are merely people, driven to do what they must do because they think they are in the right. And those actions have consequences, some of which come to fruition in this book, though many more will come to light in the third book of the series.

One of the other things that I enjoyed about The Grace of Kings was the themes that Liu chose to tackle in the novel. Again, I can say the same about The Wall of Storms, but in this novel Liu seems determined to cover a lot more themes than the ones related to a failing empire. An example is the excerpt below, which features one of the most remarkable explanations of privilege I have ever had the pleasure of reading in any book, non-fiction or fiction:

“I have placed some humble gifts for you in these boxes,” Zomi said, looking at each of Timu, Théra, Phyro, and little Fara. “One of them contains a piece of thousand-layer cake… The other three boxes are empty. The princes and princesses may each pick a box, and whatever you find in the box, that is your dessert for tonight. If you find yourself in possession of the thousand-layer cake, you have no obligation to share with your siblings. And if you find yourself holding an empty box, you must not complain. Do you like this arrangement?”

“Um…,” said Phyro.

“That’s unfair,” said Fara, her voice crisp and childish. “We should share!”

“Why is it unfair?”

“I didn’t go anything wrong,” said Phyro. “Why should I get an empty box?”

Zomi looked at Phyro. “Before birth, all of us are mere potentials. We have no control over the moment of incarnation, when we might end up as the son of an emperor or the daughter of a peasant. The veil is lifted as we come into the world, and we find ourselves holding a box that determines our fates without regard for our merit. Yet all the great philosophers have always said that our souls are equal in weight in the eyes of the World Father, Thasoluo. It would be most strange if our own sense of justice, after being cultivated by the wisdom of the sages, cannot match that of a child of four.”

Phyro’s face turned red, but he had no response.

Unexpectedly, Prince Timu came to his rescue. “That is mere sophistry, Zomi Kidosu.”

Zomi Kidosu regarded him coolly.

“You misunderstand the Classical philosophers. That our souls are equal in the eyes of the World Father does not mean that we’re meant to achieve material equality. … You speak as though it is bad to be a peasant, but there is also the nobility of being virtuous in poverty; you speak as though it is good to be a king, but a king’s cares are as great as his fortune. Neither one is inherently better than the other: Each should strive to excel in his assigned position. Not everyone prefers thousand-layer cake. That is true wisdom.”

“I see,” said Zomi. “Prince Timu, you will surely not object then if I eat the thousand-layer cake and give you the wrapping paper to lick? In fact, why don’t we switch places so that I can experience the suffering of your many cares in the palace, and you get to experience the nobility of poverty in my muddy hut?”

It is unfortunate that I cannot quote the entire scene at length, because the excerpt is even more powerful in its proper context, but it is still a remarkable explanation of privilege that I think more people could stand to learn about and understand. And it is the only scene: Liu delves into many more complex and relevant (both within the context of the story and outside of it, in the real world) themes throughout the novel, sometimes briefly, but other times at length. I do not expect, but always hope that, authors will tackle ideas and themes that are of particular relevance to real world issues, and I am glad that Liu does so – and will likely continue to do so – in this series, without once sacrificing characterisation or storytelling.

Overall, The Wall of Storms is an amazing, heart-wrenching continuation of the Dandelion Dynasty series. It contains the best aspects of its predecessor, while simultaneously upping the ante, both in terms of characterisation and the stakes of the overall plot. Liu not only expands the world in which his story is set, but also deepens the thematic concerns of the series as a whole. Though the narrative focuses on multiple characters, and has a tendency to jump back and forth between past and present, it is very coherent and readable – especially for readers who still remember the occasionally confusing nature of the first book. This novel is a long read, to be sure, but it is a very rewarding read, and I, for one, am very much looking forward to the next book in the series.

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