The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
“There’s never going to be an end to suffering if ‘he deserves it’ is all the justification people need for inflicting pain.”
Ken Liu is known in the SFF community for writing wonderful short stories like ‘The Paper Menagerie’, which uses an inventive, fantastical plot to tell a moving story about living between cultures. The Grace of Kings is his first full novel, book one in the Dandelion Dynasty series, lives up to the promise of his earlier work, translating his skill with strong characterisation and evocative prose to full-blown epic fantasy with ease and panache. Set in a vividly realised secondary world enhanced with elegant silk airships and steampunk whale submarines, it draws more on Chinese history and mythology than the more usual medieval Europe and Norse mythology. It tells the tale of Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, two rebel warriors fighting to bring down the Xana Empire. As the story unfolds, Liu explores the nature of politics, the ease of seizing power compared to the difficulties of keeping it, and the limitations of our moral codes when we are forced to think about what’s best for large numbers of people over long periods of time.
The archipelago of Dara was made up of the seven independent kingdoms of Cocru, Gan, Amu, Haan, Faça, Rima and Xana until they were forcibly united into the Xana Empire by Emperor Mapidéré. Twenty-three years later, the Emperor is dying, having spent the past decades chasing immortality and enlisting men to build large, impractical projects. Across the kingdoms of Dara, resentful of Xana’s conquest and years of misrule, rebellion is fermenting.
Kuni Garu, a cunning bandit with a good heart and a gift for leading people, and Mata Zyndu, a seven-foot tall warrior descended from a proud line of Cocru’s brilliant generals, become swept up in the rebellion and soon find themselves fighting for the freedom of Dara. Despite their physical differences and their different outlooks on life, Kuni’s charisma, compassion and strategic thinking and Mata’s incredible strength and fighting prowess complement each other well, and they soon become fast friends as they rise up the ranks. However, even as they bring about the fall of the Xana Empire, events conspire to turn the two friends against each other, and as they drift ideologically further apart Kuni and Mata become engaged in a deadly war over who will control the future of Dara.
While The Grace of Kings is a book about war and politics that takes a long hard look at the human cost of both, and isn’t afraid of spilling blood, it stands distinct from the grimdark fantasy of George R. R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie. It is much less cynical in tone, and more optimistic about human nature. While some of Liu’s characters do bad things or make horrifically bad decisions, none of them are complete monsters. Liu’s characters are all drawn in exquisite detail and roundly developed. He spends time with pretty much all the characters who have an impact on the book’s incredibly complicated plot. This gives the reader enough of their backstory, their personal and social context, so that however unwise or unpleasant their actions, the reader can understand where they are coming from and exactly why they have chosen to do these things.
Liu favours a complicated view of human morality; people are rarely entirely good or entirely evil. They are usually looking out for a way to keep themselves and their loved ones safe, they have reasons for the decisions they make, and they very rarely see themselves as villains. This approach extends to Kuni and Mata. While Kuni stands for progress – he sees the injustices of the world and wants to build a better world for the people. While Mata stands for the old order – he is obsessed with the received notions about honour, courage and strength from the legends that he has been brought up with, and wants to impose this on the rest of the world. The book never shies away from portraying the horrific things Kuni has to do in order to fight this war, and even as it points out the flaws in Mata’s worldview it admires his honesty and strength of conviction.
As well as boasting well developed characters, the archipelago of Dara itself is thought through in impressive and immersive detail. Liu manages to give each of the seven kingdoms its own geographical and cultural identity, in a detail and depth that is more than mere stereotype, from the plains of Cocru with its martial culture to Haan, the home of the most prestigious schools and universities, to the city of Müning on the island of Arulugi off of Amu. Liu has also given thought to how these different cultures would cope with being oppressed by the Xana Empire, and how this in turn shapes their attitudes towards the rebellion. The empire’s attempt to homogenise Dara culture winds up working against them, as it means that by suppressing the culture of the individual kingdoms, they lost the opportunity to have great Cocru warriors like Mata Zyndu or great Haan inventors and strategists like Luan Zya, men who are products of their kingdoms and so are committed to them rather than the empire in the rebellion.
Liu has also considered how the seven kingdoms would interact and how the empire would administer them. Kuni is more than just a cunning warrior, and when he is in control of the cities of Zudi and Pan, he spends time learning about administration and taxes. These are details that by themselves might sound dull, but because Kuni understands how a good system of administration and fair taxes help keep his cities’ economies running and so the workers can afford to eat and so are happy to support him, Liu is able to show the reader how these details can shape the political climate and so have massive consequences.
The war between the rival Dara kingdoms is reflected in the war between the gods. Each of the kingdoms has a patron god, who represents the characteristics of the kingdom and its people, so martial Cocru has the twin goddesses Kana the goddess of fire and Rapa the goddess of ice, scholarly Haan has Lutho, the god of knowledge. The gods have an agreement that they will not directly interfere with human matters, so the only way that they can take part in the war is by subtly manipulating key individuals. This allows Liu to use magical elements, but sparingly, in a way that doesn’t give any character too much power. It also means that anything the gods influence is something that was already latent within the character, so their interactions wind up telling us about the character they are dealing with. It is also the source of much humour, as humans prove to be much more difficult to control and predict than the gods anticipate, and in the end humans wind up interpreting the vague signs and portents of the gods to suit themselves anyway.
The Grace of Kings is wonderfully diverse. The kingdoms of Dara feature people of various races, who mix throughout the archipelago freely, from the brown-skinned Kuni to his red-haired wife Jia Matiza. Mün Çakri, an ex-butcher and fierce warrior who fights wearing a shield covered with butcher’s hooks to snag his enemies’ swords and winds up becoming one of Kuni’s most trusted generals, is openly gay, which is accepted as no big deal by everyone. The book’s portrayal of women is particularly strong. Liu demonstrates that it is possible to write an epic fantasy about war and heroes without side-lining women, and spends time showing the different roles they play in the world he has created.
The book boasts a varied cast of female characters with depth and agency. Jia is the first person to see Kuni’s potential and not only inspires him to become more than a petty bandit but continues to help and advise him throughout the war. Gin Mazoti, an orphan from Amu who has been living as a man in order to achieve her ambition of being in the army, is a gifted strategist and brilliant military leader who winds up becoming Marshall of Kuni’s entire army. Princess Kikomi of Amu is manipulated into using her sexuality as a weapon, but later takes charge of the situation.
However, it is not just a handful of women who are important to the story. Liu shows how short sighted the Xana Empire has been by ignoring the potential of women to help in the war effort, as Kuni’s army drafts women to be soldiers, airship pilots, cooks and herbalists, vastly increasing the size, range and health of his armies compared to those of his enemies. Kuni also recruits people with missing limbs and other injuries or conditions into his army and develops prosthetic limbs for them, allowing retired veterans to return with their experience and allowing marginalised people to take part in the struggle. In this way, The Grace of Kings elegantly shows the importance of diversity by showing what societies lose when they exclude people.
Politics lie at the heart of The Grace of Kings. The book explores how power corrupts, with well-meaning people losing their perspective once they gain control over other people’s lives. A recurring theme is that it is easy to take power but not so easy to keep it. This is because power can be seized by brute force, but once someone is in control they suddenly have influence over the lives of many people, and it is ultimately how well they serve the people that will determine if they can stay in power, as people will eventually rise up against tyrants.
However, the people in power, from Emperor Mapidéré to Kuni Garu to Mata Zyndu, are still only human. Deciding one’s moral code is easy where your friends and family are concerned, but deciding what is best for hundreds or thousands of people over hundreds of years is not so simple. Kuni and Mata eventually have to face the fact that the choices they make about the future of Dara will affect people’s lives for decades, possibly centuries to come. Such responsibilities are heavy to carry. It is this depth of understanding of human decisions against the weight of history that makes The Grace of Kings such an ambitious and thought-provoking read, but it is Liu’s understanding of human emotion that makes it so powerful.