Review: The Grace Of Kings by Ken Liu

Author: Ken Liu

Published: April 7th 2015 

Rating: 4 Stars

Epic Fantasy | 623 pages| Published by Simon & Schuster


The Islands of Dara Map (1)

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 Grace of KingsThe 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.  


Discussion:

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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31 thoughts on “Review: The Grace Of Kings by Ken Liu

  1. Hi Nazahet – I enjoyed reading this post although I am not a reader of epic fantasy works. Why don’t I read them? That’s a good question! I didn’t read them when I was younger and in recent years I’ve begun to read more nonfiction. Sometimes I look at [what I imagine are] epic fantasy novels, thinking I ought to give them a try but they always look huge! – often a part of even larger series and I just wouldn’t know where to start!

    1. Hi, Leslie. Thanks for stopping by!

      Yes, most of epic fantasies are very, very long and I think if you don’t build a love for them early on in life, then they probably won’t be something you enjoy later in life either.
      That’s OK, though!
      I have been reading them for most of my life so they feel like second nature.
      On the other hand, I never really nurtured a love for reading nonfiction and to this day I read embarrassingly little nonfiction. Perhaps that problem will fix itself as I get older? We shall see.

  2. I’ve just mildly heard about this book somewhere…and I think your review has finally convinced me to pick this up. I’ve read just one other epic fantasy series…ASOIAF and am a die-hard fan of the books as well as the tv series. I own LOTR but for some reason, have been putting it off. Anyway, great, detailed review!

    1. The Grace of Kings should be mentioned quite frequently over the next week at least due to its nomination for the Nebula Awards.

      I also own LOTR but have only read the first book. I do like the movies, but I couldn’t get into the books… Perhaps I should try give them another shot sometime.

      ASOIAF is my favorite epic fantasy of all time, though. 🙂

      1. I didn’t know about it’s nominations in the Nebula Awards…but reading about it in your review will definitely make me keep an eye open for the book.
        I haven’t watched the LOTR movies…because I want to read the books first, but since I own all the three books in a single book bind-up, the book looks much more intimidating. I hope I’ll read the series soon.
        And, same with ASOIAF 🙂

        1. I’m currently reading The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin because it was also nominated for Best Novel at the Nebula Awards. It’s very exciting to see epic fantasies by people of color getting recognized!

          Oh, I do hope you read ASOIAF one day. It is so special to me, though I do acknowledge the series is not for everyone. The day Winds of Winter is released, I very well may have a heart attack. But I’ll be a happy reader. 🙂

          1. I have read the ASOIAF…in fact, I’ve not seen the tv show 😀 I was watching season 2 when some torture scene completely grossed me out and I stopped watching it…and by that time, I was done with the fifth book so I thought it didn’t matter. But now, I’m watching season 6 and so far it’s amazing. And, can’t wait for WOW!!!!
            It’s LOTR I wish to read soon…:)
            And I’ll have to check out the Nebula Awards nominations…

          2. Haha yeah 😀 It;s just that torture scenes really gross me >.< And by that point, I had already read all the books so I didn't mind. But before season 6, I did meticulous research about the storyline in the show, and I know that it's very different from the books…guess us readers will just have to follow both the stories 🙂

  3. I thought that I would have nothing to say here, because I don’t read fantasy. BUT I love Lord of the Rings and will take any chance I can get to talk about it. So, I don’t know why I don’t usually like fantasy but like Lord of the Rings. All my brother used to read was fantasy, and I have tried a couple books that he’s suggested to me, and I still haven’t been able to get into them. I do love the way Tolkien writes – his books make me chuckle. And they are so smart. So, what is it about them that’s different?
    Is Game of Thrones considered fantasy? I haven’t tried those ones yet (but I own them!).
    I read The Golden Compass with my kids, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

    1. LotR is classic fantasy. Modern fantasy is a bit different, I think. Perhaps you’re a fan of older works of fantasy? It’s difficult to know because you haven’t read much of the genre. But not liking The Golden Compass is a good indication that these kinds of stories are not for you, with exceptions! haha. That’s OK, though 🙂

      Yes, Game of Thrones is fantasy. It’s very light on fantasy, though, and very, very high on political intrigue and character death count. There are dragons, frost zombies, ancient magics, many gods, and all kinds of other neat and magical things.

  4. Oh ok, my bad. I read my previous comment where I wrote ‘And same with ASOIAF’ 😛 I actually meant that my opinion about ASOIAF was the same as yours 😛

  5. Haha battle scenes always make me laugh or yawn! 😀 That said, I want more women characters and less battle scenes and way less pages, but I do want to read non-western fantasy and I really liked Liu’s translation of the Three-Body Problem so I will give it a try anyway. Don’t particularly enjoy epics and have only started fantasy like one or two years ago, but I do love Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy…must reread. Is this one a standalone, do you know? Cause I’ve noticed fantasy writers don’t like to write just one book, they wanna keep you busy the rest of your life 😀

    1. I can understand your reservations about reading The Grace of Kings. It’s not the best epic fantasy I’ve ever read, but it’s pretty darn good.

      And yes, the lack of women is a serious problem early on, but it gets a little better later on. Hopefully later books are more gender balanced. My favorite fantasy writers, GRRM and Brandon Sanderson write incredible female characters and they take center stage FREQUENTLY. I hope Ken Liu can do the same. Because, of course it’s a series. Book 2 will be out October 2016. 🙂

  6. What a great review! Sounds like a really interesting book. ☺
    By the way, for some reason your comments don’t work in the mobile reader! I think they used to work before but now if I wanna comment I have to open the post outside of the app. Just thought I’d let you know. 😊

    1. Hmm. I removed the mobile theme to see how my blog would look and work, but of course there are problems! Hahah. Typical. I’ll switch back to the mobile theme to see if that fixes it.

      Thank you so much for always looking out for me and letting me know about the issues. I’m really grateful! 🙂

      1. You’re welcome! I wanted to comment on a couple of your other posts but couldn’t, and then I always forgot to do that when I was using my computer. Just figured out how to open posts outside the app haha.

  7. I don’t really read epic or high fantasies 🙈 One of the main reasons is that most of them are HUGE and my attention span refuses to co-operate. I’m slowly trying to read outside of my comfort zone though so I might try one eventually. I can definitely see why so many people love them though.

    I don’t know if I’d ever read this book, but your review was fantastic and I really enjoyed reading it 😊

    1. I’m generally like you. I like to stay away from huge books because I do have a short attention span, but I have always made exceptions for high fantasies. There’s something about them that I find so incredibly appealing. But I do understand they’re not for everybody. Thanks for being honest 🙂

    1. This book is really good but admittedly not for everyone. It’s certainly not as good as A Song of Ice And Fire! Are you ready for the new episode?? Hopefully more serious and actual plot happens. 😀

  8. Omgg I never tried non-western fantasy before and this sounds like a great start !! 😏 Glad you enjoyed the book 💕 Altho the women were quite absent in the book ahah XD where that #girlpower LOL no kidding I guess its very oriental asian too the aspect of male-centered. It is quite rooted in our culture unfortunately😂 -Trang

    1. Yeah, I’ve heard about that aspect of Asian cultures. The author is obviously very aware of that and tried to be traditional about it because it’s based on ancient cultures. But I still need prominent female characters in the books I read. I notice it immediately if women are absent! haha

  9. So glad to see that you enjoyed this! I had so many arguments with myself over whether to pick this up when it first came out (it was only in that weirdly tall version and thus would’ve caused a coup on my bookshelf). I’m sooo curious/excited/impatient to pick it up at some point though!

    1. I read the ebook, and then bought the audio book because I was having a hard time focusing. I did read along as the audio played, though, so I will still say I technically “read” it. Haha. It’s a dense and complex read but very rewarding for those who put in the effort.

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