Ken Liu is a multi-award-winning author and translator (in addition to being a lawyer and software programmer), probably best known for his short fiction. I was aware of Liu’s work for quite some time before I actually read any of it. His award-winning short story “Mono no Aware”—one of my favorite contributions in the anthology The Future Is Japanese—was my introduction to his fiction and Liu quickly became an author who I made a point to follow. And so I was very interested to learn about his debut novel The Grace of Kings. Published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster’s new speculative fiction imprint Saga Press, the novel is the first of three books planned for Liu’s series The Dandelion Dynasty. Often described as a silkpunk fantasy epic, the novels are heavily inspired by Chinese history and the historical legends surrounding the Han dynasty, such as the extremely influential Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
The islands of Dara were once made up of seven independent kingdoms which were constantly at war with one another. Generations passed before one of the kings was finally able to conquer the others, for the first time uniting the lands to form a single empire. The newly-coronated emperor intended to establish a lasting peace among the lands of Dara, but power has a way of corrupting its wielder and his vision was ultimately overshadowed by his ruthlessness. There were great undertakings made for the good of the empire, but there was also great suffering. As the emperor ages and approaches the end of his life, the stirrings of rebellion begin. Two very different men will be caught up in the resulting wars, becoming leaders in the conflicts as the empire disintegrates: Kuni Garu, a seemingly carefree, small-time gangster, and Mata Zyndu, the last in a long line of legendary warriors and generals. Whether through fate, luck, or the will of the gods, together the two of them are destined to help shape and reshape Dara as it enters into a new era.
Over the course of The Grace of Kings, Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu emerge as two of the most pivotal characters in the unfolding epic, but they are really only a small part of a much greater whole. Much like the historical legends that influence the novel, there are dozens upon dozens of named characters who play a significant role and whose actions, even those that seem inconsequential, will have a tremendous impact on the way events develop. Liu has established a complex world filled with differing cultures and traditions which are in conflict with one another. Government administration, politics, economics, commerce, social structures, history, religion, mythology, geography, agriculture, philosophy, education, innovation, technology and so much more have all been taken into consideration in the creation of The Dandelion Dynasty. And none of it exists in a vacuum. The interplay and intricate connections among all of these different aspects of Dara has been captured remarkably well; a simple change in one that may initially appear to be insignificant can trigger a chain reaction which has unexpected and far-reaching ramifications in the others.
The Grace of Kings recounts over two decades of Dara’s history and legends, following the people involved in the wars resulting from the collapse of the empire and the attempts made to establish a new order among the chaos. The story is told in short chapters, many of which at first don’t seem to be directly related, but they slowly build upon each other as more and more connections form. The Grace of Kings becomes increasingly complex as it progresses but the novel is still easy to read and follow, showing how the actions of a single person can dramatically change the course of history. The world of The Grace of Kings is so incredibly well-realized that it can be imagined how events would have turned out if any particular person’s decisions were made differently. Very few of the characters act maliciously without good reason and none could be described as evil for evil’s sake; what they do they do because they believe it to be right. But even so, sometimes the consequences are heartbreakingly tragic. The Grace of Kings is the beginning of a spectacular epic; the magnificent worldbuilding and diverse cast of believably flawed characters greatly impressed me.