And I feel like I’m reading it super late. This book came out in 2015, and it has basically been on my reading list since then. Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings features a empire in a fantasy archipelago which crumbles upon the death of its authoritarian sovereign. Cunning gangster Kuni Garu has remarkable intelligence but no direction in life. The scion of a martial dynasty, Mata Zyndu, has revenge and justice for his purpose, but little room for friends and relationships. The rebellion against the empire brings them together, and each rises through the ranks until they command opposing armies. Their rivalry transforms a familiar high fantasy conflict into a fascinating meditation of leadership and culture.
I don’t usually call these kinds of books “epic” fantasy. Call me old-fashioned, but my educational background tells me that epic should be a poetry genre, although I am aware of how far astray the currents of language have carried the term. Too often, “epic” anything just means overblown, rather it’s original sense as a comprehensive work about humanity’s heroism. The Grace of Kings earns it, however, because of the gods in this book. The gods act like gods in myths – they have powers and also human flaws like petty vendettas – and not merely people with superpowers. It also manages the daunting task of tying together enough threads of the world with character driven stories to remain believable. Liu, who absolutely rocks at short stories, frequently delivers just the right punch in the gut with a single chapter. When a single chapter or plotline can blow your mind, the author has made a solid connection. The story of the prime minister who had always been the world’s second-best scholar until he poisoned his rival definitely tops the list of my favorites.
Sometimes these individual chapters are a little more compelling than Kuni and Mata’s story lines, but fantasy veteran Liu clearly knows that we’re all expecting the two main characters to face off at some point, so he works around it. The inevitable successes of two major characters allow room for a unique and detailed universe to blossom around them. The world of Dara functions in many ways more like an anthropological science fiction, where cultures evolve naturally and respond to practical problems, like creating airships that move faster due to less weight, rather than conjuring a magical solution. Even when the gods do intervene, it usually appears in a clever fashion, like Luan Zya’s book that draws from his own knowledge from his own mind. This more down-to-earth approach allows a decades long story to unfold in the same space that most other fantasy take to cover months or years long stories.
The Grace of Kings brings a much needed face lift to the genre, but it does rely heavily on genre tropes like destined heroes and gruff, ancient sword masters. Ratho and Dafiro, the two brothers who enter the same army as soldiers and later align themselves each with either Kuni or Mata, represent the most egregiously predictable story line here, even though they provide a necessary lower decks perspective. Other characters seem more loyal to the book’s theme of ambition, such as Kuni’s advisers who turn rebellious suddenly after 500 pages, rather then their own personalities, but the overall narrative smooths over these minor ruffles.
If you haven’t yet, give The Grace of Kings a long hard look this summer. It’s bulk should occupy the time provided by planes and pool chairs alike, and the enchanting land detailed here will keep your mind occupied for even longer this summer. I’ll be starting in on its sequel soon, which looks to be just as long of a venture into the fantasy world of Dara. Be sure to check out Ken Liu’s website for any word of book three!
Four out of five stars
Favorite quote: “And so, from chance, Luan derived certainty; from chaos, order; from randomness a pattern that searched evermore for meaning, perfection, and beauty.”