The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 7, 2015

Summary: 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, soaring battle kites, conspiring goddesses, underwater boats, magical books, as a streetfighter-cum-general who takes her place as the greatest tactitian of the age. 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.

Thoughts: When people think about epic fantasy, they often think about a a series, something longer than a trilogy, that spans many years and is full of great and far-reaching events. Ken Liu manages to achieve this in a single novel. Though it is the first book of a series, the scale that it deals with is immense, and it works fairly well as a standalone epic fantasy, which can be hard to come by.

The Grace of Kings features a large and diverse cast of characters, but the story generally revolves around two main figures: Kuni Garu, the smooth-talking bandit-turned-war-leader, and Mata Zyndu, a hard and fierce fighter who shows no weakness and despises betrayal. With the previous emperor recently dead and his heir being a boy with no knowledge of governance and so who leaves the running of the empire to his advisors, the empire is in turmoil. Abuses of power run rampant. Death from tyranny and neglect are everywhere. And not being the type of people to take this quietly, Kuni and Mata take it upon themselves to make a difference. As people flock to them and the lines are drawn, great change is in the air for the empire. But as with any war,it’s far from clean, it’s far from clear-cut, and it’s as brutal and political as anyone could expect.

And all the while, the gods watch on…

Honestly, it’s a difficult novel to sum up properly. It’s full of military strategy and tactics and politics, as real war is. It’s not possible to say that one side is right and the other is wrong. It’s not possible to just root for the good guys, the liberators, because there’s every chance that the army who liberates you will turn into your new oppressors. Your loyal advisor may be plotting your demise. When the winds change direction, so too might the people closest to you. War is messy, and not just on the battlefield, and Liu portrays this well. As such, it’s difficult to say, “Oh yes, this side does this thing and that side does that thing,” because it’s true right up to the point where it changes. And then it changes half a dozen times. The lines get redrawn so many time you might well need a flowchart to keep up with things.

It’s that very thing that makes it such a good novel, though. For one thing, it’s definitely got reread value, since reading it through a second time might make many of the events a lot clearer when you know a bit of what’s coming. Much like how it’s hard to tell how any given event will turn out while it’s happening, in hindsight things often seem a lot clearer. So if you’re looking for a realistic portrayal of both the violent and the political sides of war, then this is a fantastic novel for those things.

It’s also fantastically realistic in that not every character sticks around to the end, and not just because they get killed. Again, much in the way that it happens in real life, characters show up, play a small role for a few chapters, and then vanish into history, leaving a little influence behind but not always an essential one, one that changes the course of the story or is absolutely necessary to the tale being told. Kikomi, for instance, played a role that was important for her people, she had a bit of influence on Mata especially, but when all is said and done, her scenes and her name could have been excised from the novel and I don’t really think anything would have changed.

Which is a shame, because she was really a fascinating character, and I wished she’d had a larger role in the story.

This is both a positive and a negative, in my opinion. As I said, it makes it wonderfully realistic, because people are like that. They come and go and don’t always have some great role to play in the grand scheme of things. I liked seeing that, because they were like little side stories that added detail and flavour to the piece, made it feel more complete. On the other hand, it creates scenes that feel an awful lot like filler, scenes that could have been cut without losing anything, and things felt meandering at times.

The large cast of characters also was both of a positive and a negative. They’re hard things to manage at the best of times, and then you add in all the chaos of war. They bordered on unwieldy here, and if you asked me what certain characters did, I might not be able to tell you. They played important roles, won important battles and strongly influenced how the story would turn out, but there were so many of them that they were hard to keep straight.

Perhaps this is a very subjective complaint. Other people with better minds for it might have had a much easier time. And I can’t deny that they had great importance and added a good deal to the story. But some of them were just unmemorable.

But onto things that were positive without anything negative attached to them. I adored the addition of the gods to the story. They weren’t just passive watchers, either, as it would have been easy to do when they had all made a pact not to directly interfere or bring harm to mortals. But they often appeared in disguise to offer advice to characters who had attracted their attention, and in the case of Tazu, influenced the outcome of battles in a very clear way but still managed to stick to the letter of the pact, if not the spirit of it. They were varied, primal, and fascinating characters in their own rights.

It’s not often that I can say this, but I loved the presentation of war here. Specifically, I liked that it wasn’t a gradual build to one giant fight that would decide everything. It was a series of small victories or losses. The final battle of the book wasn’t any bigger than the ones that had come before it. Territories were gained and lost numerous times. And as I mentioned previously, sometimes the victor oppressed citizens of newly-captured cities much more harshly than the people who held it before; it wasn’t a story of good versus evil, no matter how much the rebel armies had started with the good intention of freeing people from tyranny and slavery. Good people did horrible things in the name of the greater good, and that greater good wasn’t necessarily good in the long run. Mata Zyndu might have been brilliant on the battlefield, but he’s lousy at politics and governance, and people suffered for what he did in the name of creating a better world.

Ken Liu has managed to do something I didn’t think possible. He managed to make me like how a war was presented. I honestly didn’t think it could be done, but evidently, I was wrong, and it’s The Grace of Kings that I have to thank for it. The realistic portrayal of people and events, the way things were less than clear-cut, and the way it wasn’t all about either fighting or politics, but a solid mix of the two, was genius. I’m already looking forward to the second book in the series, especially knowing that at least one of my favourite characters makes a comeback, and I have high hopes that it will be just as great as this one. The Grace of Kings is a brilliant novel, full of action and philosophy in equal measure, paving the way for silkpunk fantasy to take a strong place on many bookshelves.

(Received for review from the author.)

14 comments on “The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu

    • It is. And I liked it! I have a great interest in east Asian cultures, so this right from the get-go, knowing it had its origins in Chinese history, I was attracted to it.

  1. I like how he put characters and events in the story that don’t necessarily have a major impact. It is very realistic. In life you may do something for long period of time or meet someone who has no lasting affect on you. I think that’s a cool idea to put in the book, but then again, it is a book and not real-life, so I could change my opinion after having to read through it.
    Also, silkpunk sounds like it is going to be very interesting.

    • Absolutely. And it really works to add layers of reality to the story. The only downside is that it doesn’t necessarily make for the best reading. A lot of things we tolerate in books aren’t very realistic, and vice versa. It’s a balancing act. Here, I really find that it was kind of two-toned: it inflated the novel needlessly, but everything was already so wonderfully realistic that even the random come-and-go characters felt like they still had a place in the story.

  2. I’m about a quarter of the way through this now, and I know what you mean about the large cast of characters. In between the major perspectives there’s almost like a collection of narratives about the people affected by war, which is really opening up the world.

  3. This sounds like something with a bit of a different twist in fantasy. Sounds great. Thank you!

  4. Great review! (I must confess that I skimmed it, because I’m trying SO HARD to spoil as little as possible for myself with regards to the book…but what I read of your review was enjoyable and well-written.)

  5. Pingback: April in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

  6. Pingback: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu | Bibliotropic

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