Despite Ken Liu’s status as a newcomer in the world of novelists, his name is not unknown in literary circles. In recent years, he has made a name for himself writing speculative short fiction. His 2011 short story, “The Paper Menagerie,” became the first ever work of fiction to win all three of the most prestigious awards for speculative fiction: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Awards. However, short fiction writing and novel writing are two distinct crafts, and not all narrative conventions are transferrable from one to the other. An accomplished short fiction writer is not guaranteed a successful career as a novelist, but considerate buzz was nevertheless abound when Liu announced the upcoming release of his first-ever full-length novel titled The Grace of Kings. Much like “The Paper Menagerie,” which details the relationship between a Chinese mother and her American-born son. Liu’s The Grace of Kings is a riveting narrative in which Eastern and Western influences tangle to create a story that bridges the gap between histories and storytelling traditions. The novel is, in many ways, a step in a fresh and exciting direction for contemporary fantasy, but it is not without flaws that Liu must work to address in future instalments.
The Grace of Kings draws influence from a wide range of sources: historic Chinese romances, Greek and Latin epics, and Middle English lyrics. It is reminiscent of histories that span continents, but the very core of the novel is based on a period of discontinuity between the Qin and Han dynasty which has come to be known as the Chu-Han Contention. Liu’s epic begins with a unified Dara under Emperor Mapidéré’s rule, whose corrupted empire strains under a resentful slave population who has everything to gain by rebelling after the death of their emperor. At the heart of the story is two men of profoundly different origins—Kuni Garu, a charming ne’er-do-well, and Mata Zyndu, one of the last of his noble clan and a warrior of legends—brought together by war only to become rivals in the end. During the brewing unrest, a pantheon of gods bear witness to a change sweeping through Dara that inspires leaders and followers alike.
Although Kuni and Mata are the anchor points to which the narrative returns time and time again, The Grace of Kings is neither Kuni’s story nor Mata’s, but rather a collection of tales from a scattered group of people whose lives have been touched by the events surrounding the uprising. After all, war is never simple or discriminative. It sweeps through nations without regard, which means every person has a unique story to tell. The different narratives add realism, but the trade-off is a lack of a personal connection between characters and readers. When the scope is so big that the novel covers the fall and rise of several empires, there must be a “little picture” element to establish emotional resonance or else the story will breeze by at arm’s length with no sense of intimacy. Liu must boil the story down and figure out what the core theme of the novel is because he has yet to grant much value to the “little picture”. Unfortunately, it leaves The Grace of Kings impersonal and distant. Nevertheless, it is still one hell of an adventure.
The worldbuilding is lush and wonderfully fresh as Liu sets out to create a new genre inspired by “East Asian antiquity” in a self-coined genre called “silkpunk” which alludes to the blend of fantasy and science fiction elements most often seen in steampunk and cyberpunk. The Grace of Kings is filled with fantastic inventions, yet Liu takes none of the liberties afforded to works of fantasy as there is a plausible explanation for all of his creations. It is but a small scratch in his beloved world of Dara, as there are surely layers of information that are not presented. Liu has taken countless stories and characters and woven them into one giant narrative tapestry that spans 20 years of Dara’s history, from the first inklings of rebellion to an eventual devastating denouement: the war to end all wars. It is an extremely intricate story that takes a while to digest. The information is overwhelming and may seem off-putting to readers who are unaccustomed to such modes of storytelling. However, the vastness of the scope is admirable as Liu condenses a such a complicated story into a single novel that, in the hands of another writer, would have spanned an entire series.
However, because The Grace of Kings is a story about war, women tend to be somewhat relegated to the backburner. It is the way gender has been written throughout history which, unfortunately, means the same imbalance is often reflected in fiction, especially historic fantasies. The novel is not devoid of well fleshed-out female characters, and they certainly don’t lack narrative importance, but their noted absence from the majority of the beginning two-thirds of the novel remains frustrating. Liu is completely aware of the gender politics that entraps his story, and I don’t doubt he will develop the issue further in subsequent novels, but The Grace of Kings nevertheless skims the trap of becoming a boys-only adventure.
Despite its flaws, The Grace of Kings remains an incredible piece of literature by inspiring the mind. In Liu’s hands, the boundary between history and fantasy blur into a spectacular exploration of power, corruption, and politics. With a market so saturated with medieval Europe inspired fantasies, The Grace of Kings acts as a gateway to histories and traditions that haven’t been granted their fair share of attention in North American literature. If Liu is able to pen a tale of such great complexity and depth in his debut novel, it is difficult to imagine what he will be able to achieve with time and experience, but I’m willing to bet it will be nothing short of extraordinary.