The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

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I’ve never read anything quite like Ken Liu’s debut novel The Grace of Kings. I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain it for a week now and the closest I can come to is this: Chinese history meets The Iliad meets Game of Thrones. Sometimes it reads like a history book…and then our heroes wage their wars on the backs of whales or from steampunk-inspired hot air balloons. Sprawling and ambitious, I couldn’t help but cheer for this book, even when I didn’t love it.

Trouble is brewing in Dara. 23 years after Emperor Mapidéré united the island kingdoms under his own rule, his empire is failing. He’s on his deathbed, his advisors are scheming, the gods are angry, and after decades of cruelty, the common people have little to lose and everything to gain by rebelling.

The book primarily follows two men: Kuni Garu, a mischievous, charismatic commoner, more interested in having a drink with friends than doing an honest day’s work, and Mata Zyndu, an 8-foot-tall warrior with double pupils determined to avenge his family’s’ deaths at the hands of the Emperor. Each begins their own rebellion against the Imperial Army and their paths eventually cross. They call the other brother, and together they do great things. But once their war is over, the real struggle for power begins, and the conflicts that follow are more deadly and heartbreaking than the battles that came before.

While their struggles make up the meat of the book, other characters come into play too. A lot of Grace of Kings is devoted to little vignettes about the common people who are swept up in this war. While those characters aren’t as fully developed as our heroes, they play an important role. Liu’s story isn’t about the hero with the sword coming to save the day. It’s about this vast world, populated with common people who will have a say in building their new government, even if they don’t know it yet.

I’ve been a fan of Liu’s short stories for a while, especially the award-winning Paper Menagerie , which provoked a stoic and understated reaction from me.

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I was really excited to hear he had finally published a novel (the first in a planned trilogy), but I had a really hard time getting into this book. I returned it to the library twice before I actually made any headway. It’s a daunting book, over 600 pages long and packed (especially at the beginning) with complicated world-building. It took me about 150 pages to get into it. But once I got into the rhythm, I was surprised at how much I was enjoying it.

One of the things that stops me from giving this book a rave review is its relationship with women. It’s not as bad as the Game of Thrones series (which I enjoy) where every female character is at least threatened with rape because “it was a harsh world, it’s based on medieval times, rape happens why do you femanizis have to be so sensitive all the time.” This book doesn’t delight in rape or violence (as I type, that seems like an abysmally low bar) but the women are relegated to the sidelines. For about 300 pages, there’s basically only one female character. More show up, but they’re all still stuck in their thankless and clichéd roles. One woman refuses to use her body as a means to an end…only to realize she doesn’t have a better plan so she uses her body anyway. That could have been interesting, but her character gets tabled pretty quickly. Another has a frank conversation about her constricted options…only to wait for a man to free her. Over and over again, these women seem to strike back against the notion that they need men, but they’re powerless without them. It’s frustrating, because you can tell the author KNOWS these are tired tropes, and maybe he was trying to subvert them, but he fell short. By the time he introduces a female warrior in the third act, it feels like it’s too little, too late.

Having said that, I’m still super hopeful about this series as a whole. Grace of Kings managed to be both a great standalone book and an intriguing setup for what’s to come. The last third of the book is full of duplicity, betrayal and reversals of fortune that made me desperate to know what happens next. It’s clear that Liu knows where he wants to know next, and I can’t wait to see where he takes me.

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