The Grace of Kings
By Ken Liu
2015 has been, for me, something of a watershed year in terms of race. Not only in how I think about and engage with race and identity and representation, but also in terms of the availability and visibility of diverse art and entertainment. This was the year of Between the World and Me, of Fresh Off the Boat, of #ActualAsianPoet and #WeNeedDiverseBooks. It was the year that I realized that despite the fact that I've read hundreds of books since I started this blog, precious few were written by people of color.
I had all that in mind when I picked up a copy of Ken Liu's debut novel, The Grace of Kings. Now, if a desire to read more diverse fiction brings you to this book, as it did for me, that's fine. But it's not the only, nor even the main reason that you should read it. You should read it because it's interesting and well-written, a compelling, different take on epic fantasy.
The overwhelming majority of fantasy stories, particularly epic fantasy, can trace their roots back to the European medieval romance traditions. Springing from Malory's Morte d'Arthur and filtered through Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, we've seen all manner of iterations and variations, refinements of and reactions to these concepts, and, to be sure, there have been some real gems produced in the genre. But it's nevertheless refreshing to read a story that clearly has a different cultural basis.
From what I have been able to gather, The Grace of Kings is largely a retelling of the history and legends of the founding of China's Han dynasty in the late third century BCE. As the story opens, the aging Emperor Mapidere is touring the sprawling empire he forged through conquest. Though Mapidere is able to maintain control through reputation and force of arms, the constituent kingdoms he subjugated chafe under his rule, and after his death things fall apart again as his former subjects vie for power. In this context, we're introduced to Kuni Garu, a low-born but charismatic gambler and bandit, and Mata Zyndu, the last son of one of the noble families brought down by Mapidere's wars. At first separately and then together, the two men rise up and lead their followers to overthrow the empire, only to find themselves enemies when it comes time to decide how to establish a new order.
The book has drawn many comparisons to Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but as I haven't read Luo Guanzhong's classic (yet) I can't comment on whether the analogy is apt. What I will say is that the style and structure of The Grace of Kings makes it feel more like a fable than a modern novel. Rather than utilizing the close third-person perspective that we've become accustomed to, Liu keeps everything more distant, resulting in a story that feels more narrated than immediate. That may not sound like high praise given the familiar admonishment "show, don't tell" but consider that highly influential texts from Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tales to Gabriel García Márquez's novels to the Bible all have a similar feel. Here, it works wonderfully, heightening the legendary quality of the story and characters.
This is the first book of an expected trilogy, and here the comparisons to Romance of the Three Kingdoms bring up some interesting possibilities. As I mentioned, The Grace of Kings mirrors the beginnings of the Han dynasty, but Romance of the Three Kingdoms—a book I've long wanted to read but still haven't gotten around to—is set in the end of that period of Chinese history. It may be that Ken Liu has plans to diverge from his historical inspirations, but if not, he's got plenty to work with. I'm certainly curious to find out.
Started: 8/28/2015 | Finished: 9/4/2015