Tuesday, 6 December 2016
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
Let's start by saying I liked Grace of Kings. I did. There were a few things that I thought were not as tight as I wanted them to be, but as a world-as-the-characters-know-it-spanning epic fantasy of politics and war, with definite Chinese inspiration, as well as a shifting lens of focus from the personal to the world-shaking, it's a very enjoyable read. Even though my arm was sore by the end from holding it up. It's not a short book. Okay, full disclosure, it's a brick. An entertaining brick, but a brick.
Grace of Kings tells the story of a main island and several small ones that have historically had different rulers, frequent wars and redrawings of boundaries, now united under the aegis of one emperor. The emperor grows old and obsessed with immortality, harsh on those around him. Small rebellions grow, followed by larger ones sparked both close and far.
In this world, we primarily follow two men. One, Kuni Garu, has long been in touch with the more...lax segments of society, but has learned some wisdom from considering things from the point of view of the small as well as the great. The other, Mata Zyndu, was brought up on tales of the nobility of war and his own family's part of it, and wants to see the world match his fantasies.
It is not, however, just about these two. There are so many plots and rebellions going on that at times it's difficult to follow. I think that may be the point - that there are not just one or two ambitious people who see a chance to be seized, but many, many of whom have no idea to fight, and even more of whom have no idea how to govern once they've won. And while I like pulling out for the longer view every once in a while, it feels like it happens too much. The focus pulls in and out so dizzyingly that it took me a while to connect to what is, after all, the main story.
Kuni and Mata meet and become fast friends, but then the ways of the world and lack of easy ways to communicate with each other lead Kuni to the doorstep of the old emperor's son,. He seems to claim the throne promised with such a move, while Mata fumes that it should have been his by right, were the world what he wants it to be.
Their alliance fractures, and yet Kuni still sees the world as it is and could be, while Mata becomes increasingly capricious as he hands out the spoils of war. It is not that he is not honorable, but that he is unable to grasp subtlety or much beyond direct punishment of those who oppose him. It's an interesting look at how such a mindset develops.
Exiled to a small island kingdom, Kuni is willing to learn from the expertise of anyone who will come to him, and on the advice of his second wife, extends that to women, who bolster his army and his innovative needs. In fact, one woman becomes the General of his army.
This is interesting, but there is one further thing I noticed about gender, purposeful or not. When the gods try to intervene to sway humans to do what they want, the only two people who are able to choose trust over fear and greed are women. I'm not sure what else to say about that at the moment - we'll see where the rest of the series goes.
If you like fantasy that is richly drawn with more characters than you can probably possibly keep track of, this is a very good one. It's perhaps more than I would prefer - I like a tighter lens with pulls back to the larger picture at longer intervals - Guy Gavriel Kay is a master at this. But for a first novel, there are rich characters and a complex world to enjoy.