The Grace of Kings
By Ken Liu
Ken Liu was born in 1976 in the city of Lanzhou, China but moved to America when he was 11. His parents took him to Palo Alto, California but later settled in Waterford, Connecticut. He attended university getting his Bachelor's in English from Harvard College and then receiving a Doctorate of Jurisprudence from Harvard Law School. He published his short story The Paper Menagerie in 2011 and it was widely celebrated becoming the first fiction to win the Nebula, the Hugo, and the World Fantasy Award. He followed up with a number of short stories and translating Chinese works of science fiction for Western audiences such as the 3 Body Problem. His first novel The Grace of Kings was released in 2015, published by Saga Press which is a relatively new imprint from Simon & Schuster (which was founded in 1924), but as we can see it hit the ground running. The Grace of Kings was a finalist for the Nebula award and receive the Locus award for best first novel. So let's take a look at it, shall we?
The Grace of Kings take place in the Dara Island chain, while the people of the Dara islands share a language and a common culture, they were traditionally divided into seven kingdoms called the Tiro states. In the last generation before the beginning of our story however, the Tiro state of Xana having discovered the secret of lighter than air flight; united the islands and the all the peoples within it under it's rule. The nobility of the Tiro states was deposed and replaced by the appointed Xana officials of the Empire. Local measures and coins were replaced by the Xana decreed ones. Books were burned and teachings banned, except the ones favored by the Xana Empire. The Empire of Xana is ruled by Emperor Mapidere who has ruled for decades but despite the mountains of gold he has spent and the legions of doctors, magicians and seers he has assembled... Death is coming for him and as the architect of the empire approaches death's door a new generation of young men and women are growing up. A generation who remembers the fathers and mothers slain by the armies of Xana; a generation that remembers brothers disappearing into the corvee labor gangs of the Empire who never returned; who have not only had to pay crushing taxes but bribe after bribe to greedy officials. They live under a legal system where the punishment for being late is the same as the punishment for rebellion.
With the death of the Emperor Mapidere and the assassination of the crown prince due to palace intrigue leading to the elevation of his youngest son, the empire--lacking any leadership--grows more corrupt and decadent. As the child Emperor is encouraged by his regent and servants to ignore governing, the Xana elites increase the already crushing burden on the common folk. With the whole empire simmering with discontent and the leadership asleep at the wheel, it's here that a spark is finally lit. Someone is late and they know that there is no clemency to be had, or excuse that will be accepted. Someone is late and the punishment for lateness is the same as rebellion. So rebellion it is and that spark is all the Dara islands needed to explode. The conquered Tiro states raise up their banners one more time in rebellion overrunning the isolated garrisons of the Xana soldiers. Exiled nobles and their children emerge to grab for their inheritances, while ambitious and gifted commoners leap into the Chaos to see what they can wring from it. It's here that our two main characters come to the fore. Mata Zyndu and Kuni Garu are two young men who have grown up in the Empire but have little cause to love it, they're drastically different people but it's their shared cause and their relationship that will bring about a turning point in their world. So let's take a look at them.
Mata Zyndu is the last scion of a mighty house of noble heroes for the Kingdom of Cocru. Raised by his uncle Phin on a diet of exercise, tales of the great past, and hatred of the Xana Empire who stole his birthright and murdered his family. Mata looks and sounds like he just walked out of those heroic sagas himself. He's over seven feet tall, his eyes are doubled pupiled, he is stronger and faster than any other man alive and the single most powerful killing machine on two legs you will ever meet in this story. Mata lives and breaths a rigidly defined system of honor in a personal world so starkly black and white that I half expect a Silver Age Comic book hero to stop by and tell him about the exciting new invention called the color gray. Mata doesn't compromise, he doesn't relent, he doesn't feel fear, he utterly believes in his own righteousness and in the righteousness and worthiness of his cause. He's bound and determined to destroy the Xana Empire, take back his rightful title as Duke and Marshal of Cocru, and murder anyone who gets in his way. There's not much more to say about Mata, he's a fairly straightforward guy. If Mata sounds utterly terrifying to you, then you're getting the right idea. Mata hits the world of Dara like a hurricane made of blades and angry hatred.
Kuni Gara meanwhile was born in a common family and was a bright charming young man, but utterly lazy. As such he basically wasted his gifts as a petty gambler and gangster with a heart of gold until he ran into the beautiful and intelligent merchant's daughter Jia. She's a skilled herbalist and budding chemist and it's for the sake of love that Kuni pulls himself together and gets a good government job so he can be an acceptable husband. He ends up getting put in charge of a jail and having to march drafted corvee laborers to their final destination. We get a good sense of Kuni's innate character here as we see him constantly working to soften and humanize the system, refusing to abuse his position or the people put in his charge. This kinda puts him in an awkward situation when he refuses to shackle his laborers for the night and half of them desert. He's already late and has half the guys he should be delivering. The punishment for both is the same as rebelling and by now you should know how this goes. Kuni is not only cunning and charming but very flexible, willing to not only defend the bravery of women when both the troops of his opponent and taunt each other by calling each other women but willing to listen to the thoughts and ideas of his wife (and other women) and take them seriously. One of his biggest strengths is his willingness to listen to other people and consider what they have to say. Mata is a hero right out of legend willing and perhaps even able to confront entire armies all by himself but Kuni is the guy who can build of team of people and use all their talents to the greatest effect.
Kuni and Mata aren't moving alone though this world, there's a host of antagonist and supporting protagonist characters. One of the reasons I enjoyed this book is that Dr. Liu gives these characters their own motivations and goals and shows them working towards those goals. I’m left with the impression of a real world full of people all working towards different ends, instead of a world of spectators watching the protagonists. We have Luan Zya, the son of a noble clan of seers and oracles in the Tiro state of Haan. When his family is wiped by the invading Xana army it starts him on a journey that would be worth a book all on it's own and Mr. Liu takes the time to show us that journey. This is also true for Gin Mazoti, who may be my favorite character in the story; an orphan who decides to fight all the way to the top. I won't spoil Gin's story but it's a fun one as well. Not every story is fun because we also have tragic characters, for example Kindo Marana, the tax collector of the Xana Empire turned into it's chief marshal and tasked with putting down the rebellion or else. Kindo isn't a bad man, nor can I really call him a villain but his natural loyalty to his home state and the empire it's built pits him against the rising tide of history. There's also Goran Pira, who does what he does out of grief and rage and history will never know. I can also point to Princess Kikomi of the state of Amu, who really just wanted a good life but is trapped by her position and beauty to play a role she would have never chosen for herself. Speaking of, I do want to touch on how he treats his female characters. He provides a wide variety of women of different interests and personalities, who all different goals and ideals and then gives them the chance to realize those goals. He also has them all trying different methods to reach those goals and the result is women who are just as driven, varied and intelligent as the men in this story.
For that matter the gods of Dara are drawn into the rebellion and despite themselves find themselves taking sides against one another. I found this part of the story interesting as the gods will repeatedly intervene in ways large and small to try and move mortals around like game pieces but as often as they succeed they are thwarted as mortals are harder to move then you might think. The underhanded moves of the gods are often foiled by small things such as stubborn decency, or willful pride. It's a somewhat modern and traditional view of divinity wrapped up in that they can be so much more powerful than human beings but still utterly helpless to change the course of events. Dr. Liu avoids demonizing any of his characters even the divine ones, showing that most of them have motives that they believe justify their actions and will result in a better world. I suppose you could consider it a warning about ends and means there.
This story has a lot of elements running through it but Ken Liu manages to keep them all flowing and running together in harmony. That's an incredible accomplishment. At the core of the book are a couple of things, first off is the relationship between Mata and Kuni and how the changes in that relationship mean changes for the whole of the Dara Islands. Second is the effect power both in it's presence and absence has on people and relationships. Because it's power in both senses, that puts pressure on Mata and Kuni's relationship to each other and the people around them. It strains their relationships with their loved ones. It transforms their relationships with their friends and it changes their relationships with themselves and the world as their very personalities are changed under that unrelenting and ever present pressure. In lots of ways this book is a tragedy, as good men and women on all sides fight for dreams and hopes that only some of them can realize and pay costs much higher than they ever would have thought possible. Characters are brought to realize that their place in history will be determined by forces out their control, which is something that is true for a vast majority of us I think. Another thing I liked was how Dr. Liu wove a number of references and winks to East Asian history and mythology in the story. A number of you clever readers likely have noticed me reference them in this very review.
I really enjoyed The Grace of Kings, it's epic but takes the time to give space to even small scale characters, tragic but able to allow for triumphs creating a bittersweet tone over all for the work. The battles are well written in sweeping style and the interactions between the characters manage to feel organic and realistic even as their relationships go through dramatic changes. This was the first book of Ken Liu's I've read but I'm very sure it won't be the last. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys books with an epic scope but wants to see more character work. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu gets an A.
Next week Wayward Volume One String Theory. After that we look at the Cold war with Man Without a Face. Keep reading!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen