Author: Ken Liu
Published: April 7th 2015
Rating: 4 Stars
Epic Fantasy | 623 pages| Published by Simon & Schuster
The Grace of Kings is one of the most strikingly non-western fantasy epics I have ever read. This aspect of the novel is what inspired me to read it most, but the Nebula Award nomination for Best Novel certainly convinced me to read it sooner. It is a magnificent, ambitious, and complex story that demands your focus and patience and will reward you immensely if you put in the effort.
But getting to the reward will not be easy. The Grace of Kings isn’t immediately accessible and its first 100 pages of slow and methodical world-building may turn off many readers. However, serious lovers of fantasy epics will be able to acclimate easily and will slowly get to know the Islands of Dara — their people, politics, the messy history and the many wars that have plagued and will continue to plague the kingdoms.
If you’re interested in what Ken Liu has to say about his influences for the novel, read his thoughts in this blog post: The Big Idea: Ken Liu. But essentially, he draws influences from ancient Chinese folklore, culture, and more specifically the plot mirrors the rise of the Han Dynasty and the Chu-Han Contention. Thankfully, you don’t have to know any of that to enjoy the story, though you may appreciate it further if you have background knowledge of Imperial China and its history.
The epic and sprawling narrative opens with Emperor Mapidéré of Xana during an extravagant imperial procession throughout the 6 conquered states on the main island. Everyone admires and fears this powerful man who managed to unite the previously warring kingdoms. Among the audience is a young boy named Kuni Garu, a boy with no ambition born to a family that was essentially nameless and insignificant among all others. But on this day, Kuni Garu witnessed an act of rebellion — a man on a mechanized giant kite attempted to assassinate the emperor by dropping bombs from the sky. He ultimately fails, but the spark of rebellion kindles inside of him and will grow for years among the entire populace before reaching a breaking point.
Equally important to the story is Mata Zyndu, an impossibly tall and imposing young man of noble birth, who is the last son of the Zyndu Clan. Mata’s courage, austerity, and nobility are the polar opposite of Kuni’s hedonism, playfulness, recklessness.
As I mentioned earlier, the story is complex and it spans decades with countless characters who die as quickly as new ones are introduced. Attempting to summarize the plot may give a migraine, so all you have to know is this:
- 23 years into the oppressive rule of Xana, the people of the six conquered states rebel. After much fighting, conflict, and death two leaders rise in the rebellion: Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu. These two men inspire the common people to take up arms against the Xana Empire, but as they each begin to gain power to oppose the oppressor, they also begin to crave for more. This lust for power places them on opposing sides and old friends become enemies.
The actual plot is obviously a lot more nuanced and interesting than I just described. It’s best enjoyed by fans of political intrigue and military battles. Yes, there are many battles in this novel. So, so many battles. All 7 states are petty and selfish, so they would likely be fighting each other whether or not an empire was “oppressing” them. But I digress.
One of the flaws of the novel, for an entire 400 pages or so, is that it is excessively male-centered. Women are absent for dozens of pages at a time and or appear as helpless wives and sympathetic figures. Fortunately, Liu fixes this problem about 2/3 of the way through the novel. An incredible war strategist named Gin Mazoti joins the fray, and she is just as awe-inspiring and flawed as the men, but she arrived a little too late for my tastes, and seemingly out of nowhere. The women do take center stage in the last 100 pages, which brought a huge sense of relief and hope for future installments in the series.
Overall, I highly recommend The Grace of Kings to all lovers of epic fantasies and those eager to read fantasy not based on western or European cultures and standards. If you are not a regular reader of fantasy epics, however, I don’t think this one will convert you. For those interested in reading this sprawling and ambitious novel, be assured that Ken Liu has created something unique and special so unlike anything else in the genre. On that basis alone, The Grace of Kings is irresistible and a must-read.
Do you enjoy reading fantasy epics like A Song of Ice and Fire, the Mistborn Trilogy, the His Dark Materials trilogy, Lord of the Rings, etc.? If so, what do you love about them most?
If you don’t read fantasy epics, why? (Seriously, why?) 🙂
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