The Grace of Kings is the eagerly-awaited debut novel by Ken Liu. He’s known for his short fiction, and as being the translator into English of the Hugo-winning The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, which I reviewed earlier this year. The Grace of Kings was published in the UK earlier this month by independent pubisher Head of Zeus, who kindly gave me a review copy through NetGalley.
As Liu explains in the guest post he wrote for Scalzi’s website Whatever, The Grace of Kings is loosely based on one of the most interesting parts of Chinese history: the rise of the Han dynasty. But this is not a straight re-telling, or a wuxia version of Chinese history. Liu mixes that source material with Western influences including Greek and Roman myth. The result is what Liu calls ‘silkpunk’: a secondary world with ‘firework powder’, kites that can carry people, airships and warring gods, and a story told in a stylised prose form reminiscent of myth.
The story of The Grace of Kings is an unusual one. It begins with the death of a hated emperor. Although Emperor Mapidere has united the six warring Tiro states, his autocratic and dictatorial rule has been unpopular. His death prompts a rebellion. The rebellion is led by many of those who had suffered under Mapidere’s conquest and rule. Two figures in particular rise to prominence: Mata Zyndu, a warrior of great renown. and Kuni Garu, a personable wastrel who finds his true calling as a leader of men.
One of the unusual – and delightful – things about The Grace of Kings is the fresh approach it takes to its subject matter. Liu does not flinch from showing us the impact of war on the people of Daru. Along with the heroics of war there is much starvation and suffering, and conquerors mistreat those they have beaten, showing great prejudice. Although Daru is a sexist society, Liu does not fall into the trap of using that as an excuse for sexist writing. Garu’s wife Jia struggles to hold the family together while her husband is away at war, finding the reality of motherhood much less exciting than the life she signed up for. The tragic Princess Kikomi is frustrated at being confined to the narrow role of national symbol. And Gin Mazotti’s skill and flair for leadership and the tactics of war are only able to find full flower under the more open-minded Kuni Garu.
The friendship between the very different Zyndu and Garu lies at the heart of The Grace of Kings. Through it we see a critique of the simple stories of great men achieving great feats that are a staple of fantasy fiction. The brave warrior may have his place in overthrowing a tyrant and making the hard choices necessary in battle, but a peacetime leader of men needs a different set of skills. Garu’s compassion and willingness to trust those around him and exploit their skills and talents ultimately tells in his favour. Even exiled to a remote island for a perceived betrayal, his benevolent rule attracts the talented and enables him to create a flourishing society to act as a power base from which he can work to liberate the Tiro states.
The Grace of Kings is an exciting and fresh debut. I can’t wait to read the sequels.
Goodreads rating: 4*