The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, 641 pages, Saga Press, hardcover, 2015, $27.99
Review by Jessica Borsi
Part fantasy retelling of the rise of the Han Dynasty and part steampunk geo-political drama, Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings invites readers into a sweeping, legendary tale. The world, layered with different peoples, customs, and its own pantheon of capricious gods, feels dimensional and steeped in tradition, while Liu’s blend of science and magic (“Silkpunk,” as he has described it in interviews) makes it feel fresh.
Set in the newly unified Dara—a series of islands with a history of constant war—Liu’s dual theme of rebellion and the disparity between the concerns of kings and commoners is evident from the first chapter. The conquering Emperor, parading through the countryside on a gilded, multi-layered throne carried on the backs of hundreds of men, stands in stark contrast to a lone assassin operating a kite of silk and bamboo. Although the assassin is unsuccessful in his attempt to kill the Emperor, his firebombs and the arrows of the Emperor’s guard rain down on unprepared peasants. Once the threat passes, the Emperor demands the assassin be found and killed—ignoring his injured and dead subjects in what appears to be a casual, almost cavalier, disregard of the lives of those who serve him.
One of those burned in the attack, Kuni Garu, a farmer’s son and habitually truant smooth-talker, marvels at the daring attempt. While he grows up directionless, he witnesses the more subtle costs of the Emperor’s rule and alleviates suffering where he can—like a lazier version of Robin Hood. Despite his lack of ambition, he believes himself destined for great things.
Meanwhile, Mata Zyndu, the last son of a destroyed warrior clan, spends every moment preparing to depose the Emperor. A literal giant among men, his thirst for vengeance is palpable and his sense of honor unbending. As different as the two characters first appear, both the wily Kuni and the noble Mata call for change. Their meeting and eventual alliance seem both unlikely and inevitable thanks to the sweeping scope of the tale.
Through their eyes, we see that the failings of the Emperor’s Dara are many and glaring. Their world is harsh, and even the people who try to obey the new order often find themselves losing their livelihoods, hands, or heads for the smallest of reasons. On every page, rebellion roils just beneath the surface.
But as easy as it would have been to reduce the situation to good versus evil—self-sacrificing rebels against moustache-twirling loyalists—the characters are layered with faults, desires, and ideals that often lead them to unexpected places. Aided by Liu’s use of the omniscient perspective, even the vilified Emperor has a chance to tell the reader that he hoped to bring peace to Dara by unifying the kingdoms. Where his subjects see the unfair imposition of a singular written language, the Emperor dreams of a common dialect to aid in the exchange of ideas between the nation-states. Regardless of how his subjects despise him, he sees himself as a just man who makes decisions to benefit his people. As another character observes early in the novel, great men, those who effect great change, are rarely thought of as good.
This complexity is where Liu’s short story chops really shine. The omniscient perspective allows him to construct a vast array of characters from all levels of Daran society—from scheming royal advisors, to disenfranchised nobles, to censured villagers. In a chapter or two (and sometimes in as little as a few pages), Liu paints complete pictures of his characters, often illuminating the reason for their ambitions and how the unification of the island—and rebellion of the new nation-states—has changed their lives. The large cast clearly illustrates both the rising conflict and the moral gray areas common to great conquest. For instance, Mata’s strict adherence to traditional standards of nobility make him a fearless warrior, but also blinds him to granting mercy to friends and foes alike. Like the double-edged sword he wields, his greatest strength is often his greatest weakness, leading him to become both liberator and tyrant simultaneously. Liu doesn’t shy away from these gray areas nor does he give an easy “right” answer to the reader, but the narrative acknowledges the questionable morality of certain actions even if the characters refuse to.
However, the many perspective characters turn out to be double-edged swords in and of themselves. While the omniscient perspective allows the reader to see the situation from all angles, it also limits the time spent with individual characters, often stunting or preventing character development. This also gives rise to a pattern of introducing new players who contribute to a few scenes before being killed. In this way, the many minor characters—and sometimes even Kuni and Mata—can feel like pawns of the plot, there to serve a purpose and gone when their parts have been played.
Overall, The Grace of Kings presents a vivid, imaginative world that invites readers to dive in and experience the culture, traditions, and struggles of its people. Ken Liu’s prose and the novel’s pacing give an epic feeling to the events. But while his characters feel appropriately legendary, the little time spent with them and uneven development prevent them from making the leap to become relatable people that readers can identify with and connect to emotionally. Still, The Grace of Kings delivers a new take on the epic fantasy genre that will delight fans of Chinese mythology and epic stories, and has left this reader eagerly awaiting more “Silkpunk.”