The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu
The Grace of Kings, short story writer Ken Liu’s debut novel, is epic in every sense of the word. Clocking in on just over 600 pages, the tome holds a story of massive scope. It begins with a failed assassination attempt on the Emperor Mapidéré, former king of Xana, who has conquered all of the Dara states and united them all under one rule in an attempt to bring stability and safety to the realm. He may have succeeded in turning the many dissident states into one grand Empire, but in the end, the Emperor is led astray by his own greed and hunger for power and eventually his Empire dissolves into rebellion, war and upheaval.
The story stretches across several long years, mapping a seemingly never-ending game of blood, politics and power played out across the continent between kings, generals, politicians and rebels. Two men - the great warrior Mata, last heir of the noble Zyndu line, and Kuni Garu, a trickster and bandit who suddenly and unexpectedly finds himself the leader of a motley rebel force - join together in order to free the islands of its corrupt rulers, but in this world of bloody battles and trickster gods, high ideals are, in the end, seldom that easy to actually realise.
Ultimately, The Grace of Kings tells a story of power, the men that wield it, and it’s often disastrous, tragic results. During times of war, the power lies with the strongest warrior and the most skilled tactician, but there is little guarantee that those same men will fare as well in times of peace - quite the opposite, rather. Throughout the novel, men seize power and become leaders for many different reasons - an idealistic dream of a better future, greed, fear, pure luck, or a combination thereof - but whatever those reasons are, they all falter in some way or other when it comes down to actually realising their once lofty goals. The key conflict in the novel focuses not on the myriad battles, on and off the battlefield, that take place during its course, but rather on the question of what the building of a better world really costs. It may be easier to image a better future as downtrodden underdog than it is so actually bring it about once you have all that power in your hands, as the novel’s immensely large cast of characters all find out, sooner or later.
As I’ve already mentioned, The Grace of Kings truly does put the ‘epic’ in epic fantasy - a gigantic cast of (largely male) characters included. In many ways, the novel at the same time really manages to do something new with the genre - not only does it deviate from the standard “all fantasy world must be set in quasi-medieval Western societies!”-mold, but it also diverges from the grimdark way of storytelling where it seems as if the author providing the most detailed, up-close descriptions of all the blood, entrails and dirty mud their characters as to wade through in their various quests wins. That is not to say that Liu’s story isn’t a bloody and violent one, because it is, but it is instead told in a sort of folk-loric manner that I at first found almost annoyingly detached, but eventually grew to really enjoy. The novel shifts between vastly sweeping through characters and events and really digging down into the character’s personal lives and motivations in a way that makes for fast-paced read that’s not weighted down by unnecessary details or descriptive nonsense. There are no boring, lengthy lists of how people dress or what they eat, or drawn-out quests across the land to show off the worldbuilding - Liu brings his made-up world alive through different means, through the sheer enormity of its scope, the intricate weave of the story’s many-faceted intrigues, and the complicated motives of its characters.
Furthermore, Liu, especially in the latter half of the novel, lays forth in interesting discussion of gender politics. To begin with, female characters are, to put it mildly, scarce. Though disappointing, it somewhat brilliantly reflects the narrative arc of the plot - at first, under the rule of the Emperor, the continent is in some kind of peace; during the course of the story, however, not only the Empire but also much of its traditions and values are thrown into disarray. The warfare and political upheaval ultimately also allow for women, both as individuals and as a group, to somewhat rearrange their place in the world. However, at the end of the novel, where some sort of conclusion and a new state of peace seems to have been reached, the women, the ending suggests, revert back into their traditional roles as wives and mothers, left to plot and conspire in the shadows of their male relations - there is no longer any need for desperate measures, no room for women to easily step beyond their traditionally assigned roles. Order has been restored. It is very nicely and subtly done, but at the same time, the female characters unfortunately remain very few and far between.
It may not really be a minor complaint, but to be honest, it’s only one of few I had while reading The Grace of Kings - once I got beyond the 200 page mark, at least. The novel is a bit slow to pick up, but once it does, it’s well worth it. If you enjoy reading intricately plotted, well-written, epic fantasy (with an emphasis on the epic), look no further.