Review of ‘The Grace of Kings’ by Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings is the debut full-length novel of multiple award winning writer and translator Ken Liu, and is the first book in The Dandelion Dynasty a series of indeterminate length. In it, we are introduced to the world of the Islands of Dara, a warring collection of city states with a rich history. Very ambitious for a first novel and a first book in a series, The Grace of Kings manages to hit most of the necessary marks though. With flashes of the brilliance of Guy Gavriel Kay, my favourite author of all time, Ken Liu has me very excited for the next instalment of this series, a new addition to the very tiny ‘Will buy in hardcover’ list for me. Great stuff.

Two men rebel together against tyranny—and then become rivals—in this first sweeping book of an epic fantasy series from Ken Liu, recipient of Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.

Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, and shapeshifting gods. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.

Fans of intrigue, intimate plots, and action will find a new series to embrace in the Dandelion Dynasty.

I was first introduced to Ken Liu when I read his translation of of Cixin Liu’s award-winning The Three-Body Problem and I was very excited to see that he had his own full-length novel out. I’ve never really been much for novellas and short-stories so I hadn’t tracked down any of Liu’s shorter works. I’ll almost certainly remedy that now, because this book was great. Anybody who has read my reviews for a while or knows me knows of my love for Guy Gavriel Kay. His world-building and research are second to none, and I’ve never failed to pick his releases as my top book of the year.

Throughout The Grace of Kings I kept seeing glimpses of the same quality that keeps me coming back to Kay. The relationship between Garu and Zyndu, while very different from that between Ammar and Roderigo in Kay’s tremendous The Lion’s of Al-Rassan, nevertheless felt as important. I’ve seen other reviews dismiss their relationship as just declared without ever being built, and that it made no sense for them to suddenly be ‘brothers’ but I think the point they missed is the actions of the Gods in the story. There was always just this -weight- behind their relationship. You could see right away that it was going by way of star-crossed, but it just had this portentous quality of…something…that really stuck with me.

The other recurring criticism I’ve seen of this novel is the portrayal of women. Namely, claims that the portrayal of women is shallow and anywhere from uninteresting to offensive. I have a few thoughts around that. The first is that every enlightened society was at one point not enlightened. And in order for an unenlightened society to become enlightened it has to actually slowly -become- enlightened. Just because Liu brought us into this world just at the beginnings of positive social change doesn’t mean you should criticize him for portraying both the patriarchal traditional side of the line and the slowly growing more egalitarian side of the line too. This is the most interesting part of the process! If the world had remained oppressive and patriarchal, it could be praised as accurate to the equivalent time period of history. If it had started completely egalitarian and feminist, it could be praised as enlightened and positive. But just because Liu chose to show us the transition between the two, he’s doing something wrong? It feels very dismissive of the struggle and the need for the struggle to be critical of somebody who, in the first book of what could easily be a long series, is showing us the improvement in society that is coming.

The strength of Kuni Garu is that he is one of the few people in power who is actually willing to deal with people as they are. This early into an equal rights movement in real life, nobody in Garu’s position would have spent days chilling in a hut with Gin Mazoti actually listening to what she had to say, and then, when it was clear she knew what she was talking about, actually let her be the one to implement it. And yes, she’s only been able to be in this position as a mid-rank soldier by pretending to be male in a very Mulan-esque sort of situation, and yes, Garu first hears her claim that she can make a hundred men fight like a thousand he considers that she might be crazy instead of a genius. But then he considers that somebody he trusts says that she is actually that good, grants her the benefit of the doubt to explain her plans, and then when she’s actually that good, just flat puts her in charge of his army and -actually does-. There’s no male General trying to foist his will over hers, he doesn’t keep sticking his nose in to make sure she’s not screwing up. He has acknowledged that she is his superior when it comes to leading troops, and just lets her do her job the way she wants.

Criticizing Liu because his first real strong female character doesn’t show up until halfway through the book just ignores the whole fact that storytelling is a process. If this series were 10 books, and it all only gets better from here, he’s miles and miles ahead of the curve when it comes to treatment of women in stories taking place in these historical periods. Regardless, I feel like it is always more interesting to see a process than to see a motionless state no matter what that state is. That said, if you really only think fantasy is feminist if we’re already at the point of complete equality, go check out ‘A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall for one of the best treatments of that which I’ve ever read.

Altogether I really enjoyed this book. I found the world engaging, the characters interesting, and the plot actually quite decent. I find myself a little at a loss to understand the more dismissive of the negative reviews I’ve seen. I can understand not liking the book, because people have opinions and you can dislike what Liu has done. It’s the people saying ‘blah’ like this is some milquetoast middle-of-the-road ‘just like everything else’ novel that I don’t get. Whether you loved or hated it, I feel like this is going to be seen, in retrospect if nothing else, as a very important series in Fantasy.

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Author: Dan Ruffolo

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