The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu
“History is the long shadow cast by the past upon the future.”
“Killing the emperor was easy. Building a world that is more just and persuading those in power to exercise it wisely have been far harder.”
In The Grace of Kings (2015), the first book in the Dandelion Dynasty series, Ken Liu traced the fortunes of Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, as the two rebel warriors brought down the tyrannical Xana Empire under Emperor Mapidéré, and the bitter consequences of their tragic falling out. The Wall of Storms (2016) opens six years later, into Kuni Garu’s reign as Emperor Ragin. The years of peace have brought prosperity to the islands of Dara, but Kuni is finding that changing the world is more difficult than he thought, especially with his old allies from his rebel army growing restless and the enfeoffed nobles resentful amidst speculation about which one of his children will inherit his rule. However Kuni’s struggle to maintain power and Empress Jia’s machinations to ensure her son is Kuni’s successor soon take second place to a new threat, the invading forces of the Lyucu, warriors from the north intent on conquering the Dara Islands for themselves.
The Grace of Kings introduced us to Liu’s fantastical world, with its diverse peoples, its sense of history and its elegant silk technology, along with a cast of memorable and compelling characters. The Wall of Storms is a worthy sequel, demonstrating the sheer breadth and depth of Liu’s imaginary world, while it tells the story of the next generation of characters. We see the familiar characters from the previous book in a new light which grants them depth and pathos, and we see the history and technology of the islands progressing. It is a deeply philosophical book, taking in feminism, the idea that the universe around us is knowable and understandable, and the entrenched systems of power which make true social change so difficult. It is the story of the conflict between two proud cultures, culminating in a truly epic naval battle that demonstrates the sheer cinematic scope of Liu’s imagination. But at its heart is the story of two intelligent young women who find each other whilst rising above the socially circumscribed expectations of their lives.
If The Grace of Kings belongs to Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, The Wall of Storms belongs to Zomi Kidosu and Princess Théra. Princess Théra is Kuni Garu’s middle child, whose quick wits, inventiveness and natural grasp of the complexities of politics make her a far more suitable heir to the throne than the bookish but naïve Prince Timu or the charismatic but rash Prince Phyro. While Kuni sees her potential and plans to make her his heir, because she is a girl and inheritance in the Dara Islands still traditionally passes to the male offspring, Kuni knows he will have to change societal expectations for her to be accepted as a ruler. Théra is already growing frustrated with a society that expects her to marry into a wealthy family and not put any of her intelligence or learning to use.
Zomi Kidosu is a brilliant scholar from a poor fishing family who walks with a limp thanks to a lightning strike. A brilliant thinker with a scientist’s love of rationality and investigation, she has been trained by the brilliant Luan Zya, Kuni’s chief strategist. With none of the advantages or privileges of the wealthy, middle-class scholars she competes with, she wins a position in Kuni’s court through her performance in the Grand Examination. She has many radical and brilliant ideas to shake up the way the Empire is run to make it more just and fair for the Islands’ working class. However, because she comes from a poor background and is a woman, she frequently faces discrimination and resistance. The crisis of the Lyucu invasion gives both Théra and Zomi a chance to flourish, as both become involved in developing strategies and weapons to defeat the Lyucu and their garinafins, their dragon-like mounts which make short work of the Dara airships. As the two women work together, their friendship blossoms into a romance built on mutual respect and understanding.
Even more than its predecessor, The Wall of Storms is a deeply feminist book, exploring life for women in various different social strata in a patriarchal society that is only just beginning to change. Liu explores the life of Zomi Kidosu’s mother, a woman raising a child by herself in a small fishing village, who lives a life of hard manual labour to support her family. Her lot is contrasted with that of Empress Jia, who, although she is the most powerful woman in the Dara Islands, has to use manipulation and coercion in order to exercise that power, as her status as a woman means that she is not respected by the enfeoffed nobles or the military staff in the same way that Kuni is. And because of the popularity of Prince Phyro, Kuni’s son with Consort Risana compared with her son Prince Timu, she is constantly worried about losing the power that she does have.
Zomi and Princess Théra represent a new generation of women who want to find a way of breaking with the restrictive traditions that are preventing them from reaching their full potential. Their intelligence and their tenacity sees them impressing everyone form wary politicians to stuffy old scholars as their ideas and inventions help save Dara from the invading forces. As in The Grace of Kings, Kuni’s army is open to women, who are the ones who are able to fly the new design of stealth airships that prove invaluable in fighting the garinafins. Marshall Gin Mazoti, the woman who rose up from the streets to become the leader of Kuni’s forces and the most fearsome battle tactician of her day, in this book even steps into Mata Zyndu’s shoes, wielding his sword Na-aroénna and becoming a great Dara folk hero in her own right.
The Wall of Storms is also an in-depth meditation on privilege. Kuni has a genuine desire to make life better for everyone in Dara, however his best efforts frequently come up against the social constructs which keep the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. This is illustrated particularly well by the Grand Examination, which Kuni has devised specifically, with the help of his top advisers, so that he can gather the best minds of Dara to him regardless of their gender, social status or background, and to increase the availability of higher education to those who will benefit from it. Everything from the selection process to the examination conditions themselves to the marking is meticulously designed to maximise fairness and reduce bias, so that in theory anyone from any background can excel based on their intellectual merit.
However, apart from Zomi, the selected candidates at the end are almost exclusively middle to upper class men with expensive educations. Zomi, because of her different background, is more easily able to see the inherent biases that Kuni’s system, for all its good intentions, failed to remove – that all the people marking the exams are traditional scholars with old fashioned ideas, all of whom are selecting people who think, argue and reason exactly as they do. This injustice is further shown when Zomi, furious at the decadent indulgence the nobles on her home island of Dasu live in compared to the poverty she grew up with, calls them out on it and, despite having the best score in the entire region, is struck off the list of candidates because she was rude to important people. This demonstrates that, however well-intentioned Kuni’s reformations are, they are forced to play out within the existing social constructs of Xanan society, making true change and real justice challenging to implement.
The clash between the cultures of Dara and the Lyucu dominate much of the book. Liu manages to present the Lyucu as a terrifying threat whilst also humanising them and showing us where they come from. Pékyu Tenryo Roatoan is a vicious and ruthless leader, but he is also an intelligent and resourceful tactician, whose dirty tricks recall those used by Kuni against Emperor Mapidéré, although exponentially more brutal. The Lyucu come from a land of unforgiving scrubland unable to support their population, and to them the Dara Islands are a land of decadence and plenty, which could provide them with a level of stability they could previously only dream of. Furthermore, their contempt for the people of Dara derives from the nature of their original contact with them.
In one of his futile attempts at immortality, Emperor Mapidéré sent ships north of the islands to search for the land of the immortals. The crew of the ships came to the Lyucu’s land and treated them like ignorant savages, a role Pékyu Tenryo plays until he learns everything he needs to from them, then has them all slaughtered or put to work as slaves. The colonial arrogance displayed by the people of Dara in this first encounter has shaped how the Lyucu see them and set the tone for their future interactions. However, even as the Lyucu invasion sees the people of Dara under threat of death and slavery, the Lyucu find themselves absorbing the culture of the islands as they interact more with its people. This is demonstrated by the gods of the islands merging with the gods of Lyucu, as new cultural influences begin to make themselves felt across Dara, influencing and being influenced in turn. Whatever happens next, the Lyucu and their culture are here in the Dara Islands to stay.
Liu is adept at portraying the interweaving web of politics. He rarely portrays characters as completely good or evil, but as complex people with complicated motivations. Empress Jia’s manipulations are carried out to ensure the survival of her own line, but also because she genuinely believes that she is doing what’s best for the people of Dara – only a smooth succession at the end of Kuni’s reign will ensure that his dynasty continues and prevent another devastating civil war. Her actions, whatever her intentions, wind up widening tensions between Kuni and other factions in his government and military, and leave Dara in a weaker position when the Lyucu invade. This is the difficulty of playing the long game in politics – it’s impossible to predict all outcomes.
This also demonstrates another theme of the book – the far reaching and often unforeseen consequences of history. Emperor Mapidéré’s actions, and the actions of the sailors on those ships, inadvertently set up the context for the Lyucu invasion all those years later. In much the same way, the Lyucu’s tribal conflicts pave the way for Pékyu Tenryo’s ruthless rise to power. Kuni himself struggles with this throughout the book. Although Mata Zyndu could be brutal and violent, he is remembered by the people as a great hero. Kuni’s position as Emperor is built on the betrayal and killing of his friend and ally, and Mata Zyndu remains a potent symbol for fermenting rebellion and resentment, despite all the good that Kuni tries to do. Similarly, the results of other decisions Kuni made during the Dandelion Chrysanthemum war, decisions which seemed unavoidable or necessary at the time, come back to cause him trouble as he has to face their consequences.
One of the things that made The Grace of Kings so compelling is its sweeping sense of changing and developing history. The Wall of Storms develops and expands on this through its attitude to technology. Liu has a marvellous time dreaming up all sorts of fantastical new silkpunk innovations and inventions for the Dara army to use. However, as outlandish as they sound, they are all based on existing real world technologies that could conceivably develop in the Dara Islands. Similarly, the garinafins are a truly imaginative take on dragons, whose incredible abilities are all meticulously worked out as aspects of biology. Luan Zya’s maxim that “the universe is knowable” runs through the book; even the mysterious Wall of Storms surrounding the Dara Islands has behaviour that can be worked out through mathematical principles.
Rather than diminishing his fantastical creations, the combination of flights of fancy backed up by scientific knowledge reawakens us to how incredible and mysterious our own world can be, and celebrates the human ingenuity that allows us to investigate and solve problems using rationality. The second book in the Dandelion Dynasty series is darker than its predecessor, and Liu is not afraid to play hardball with all the wonderful and compelling characters he has created. However, it’s underlying faith in humanity that makes The Wall of Storms a powerfully uplifting read.