The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu, is a book that took a good deal warming up to for me, so much so that I considered giving it up multiple times through the first few hundred pages. Seriously considered giving it up. The episodic structure, which I’m generally not a fan of just as a matter of personal taste, was off-putting and distant, while both the characters and the plot felt more than a little flat. So the idea of continuing on for another 500 and then 400 pages in the same vein was not all that enticing.
But there was something about it that kept me from just shutting it all down. Partially it was the sense that while the structure was off-putting, it also had a sense of deliberateness to it that left me more open to seeing where the author was going. Another reason was if at times the narrative felt like linked short stories, several of them were quite good stories. The same sort of reasoning held true with the characterization. Yes, they did feel flat, but as with the structure and style, I had a sense that this was part and parcel of the author’s intent; that these characters, that this novel, wasn’t poorly written, simply differently written. It might not have been the type of novel or the kinds of characters I usually gravitate toward, but I was willing, again, to let it play out a bit more than usual when a book doesn’t grab me. The relatively uncommon Asian setting/texture also went a ways toward keeping me going.
And then around page 300 or so, things began to shift as focus seemed to narrow a bit onto a few select characters. I think as well I had perhaps set aside expectations and was more going with the flow of what the novel was doing rather than what I’d prefer it did. In the end, I was glad I had persevered and feel comfortable saying that readers who stick with it, maybe even against their own desires at first, will be well rewarded with an unusual but effective story.
The Grace of Kings feels in geography, language, content, mythology, and style as if Liu has taken ancient China and draped it over Oceania (though being not particularly knowledgeable about either area, this could just be my ignorance talking, so fair warning). The setting is an archipelago of islands collectively known as Dara that has for generations been divided into seven kingdoms, until one of the kingdoms — Xana — recently succeeded in conquering the others and unifying Dara under Emperor Mapidere. The succeeding peace, however, is a restless one, and in fact, the novel’s opening scene is an attempted assassination of the emperor by a rebel seeking vengeance for both his conquered kingdom and his murdered family. In the crowd, witness to the attempt, is Kuni Garu, an irrepressible, irresponsible youth who with his best friend has skipped school to see the Emperor’s parade. Farther away, but no less interested in the Emperor, is another youth — Mata Zyndu, child of a noble family slaughtered by the Empire and raised by his uncle to seek vengeance against the Empire and reclaim his family’s former status.
These two — Kuni and Mata — will be the twin poles around which most of the novel centers, as first individually, then together, they find themselves in open rebellion against the Emperor and then in open conflict with each other over goals and methods. Surrounding and/or moving in and out of their stories are a host of other POV characters: friends, wives, generals, advisors, scholars, adversaries. Some we see in interaction with Kuni and Mata or each other; others never touch directly upon the two main characters, through all are interwoven into the greater tapestry of the plot. Some appear and remain throughout to the novel’s ending; others appear and disappear (sometimes quickly, often violently, a few quite surprisingly). Often, the main narrative arc is interrupted momentarily (relative to the book’s 600-plus pages) with a background story soon after a new character is introduced so we may see how they arrived at this point in the tale.
Earlier I called the structure episodic, and I do think that’s a fair descriptor, especially of the first half of the novel but whereas most episodic novels follow a single character through a series of events, here Liu takes a wider view, skipping around amongst a number of characters as well as zooming in and out of time, jumping ahead months and years as needed, which is why I also said it felt like a series of linked short stories. This did have a somewhat distancing effect, which contributed to my considering giving up as I wasn’t particularly attached to any of the characters.
Also contributing to the sense of distance was that the characters were often presented, at least to my mind, as types rather than as fully fleshed out characters. I’m not sure if this would hold true if I actually went through these early chapters and looked at them in detail, but it felt as if there was a dearth of “interiority,” for lack of a better word (or a better made up word for that matter) — little interior monologue or consciousness, relatively flat dialog that almost felt like pronouncements rather than conversation.
Another way I might describe it is that in structure and character, The Grace of Kings was feeling like a pre-modern (or perhaps pre-modernist) novel. This was true as well in its figurative language. Symbols, for instance, were laid out right before the reader, as for instance when Jia, Kuni’s eventual wife, tells him on an early outing about her favorite plant:
I admire the dandelion the most. It is hardy and determined, adaptable and practical. The flower looks like a small chrysanthemum, but it’s much more resourceful and far less delicate. Poets may compose odes about the chrysanthemum, but the dandelion’s leaves and flowers can fill your belly; its sap cure your warts, its roots calm your fevers … It is a versatile and useful plant people can rely on. And it’s playful and fun.
Kuni is clearly the dandelion, is thereafter multiple times linked directly with it, while Mata is just as directly tied to the chrysanthemum. Another example from much later in the novel occurs when Mata crushes an ant underfoot, and then attention is drawn to that act and what it means. In a modern (ist) novel, even just the former would probably feel painfully obvious, but in the context of The Grace of Kings’ form, it feels fully of a piece with the author’s style.
One might also call this “epic” rather than “pre-modern,” in its focus on type rather than character, its use of a pan-and-zoom style and direct symbols, and certainly in its plot, which contains multiple battles (some of which occur on the page and others off-stage), long-running wars, a slew of nobles, generals, kings, queens, and emperors, long-standing grudges, and a group of meddling gods. Epic, therefore, not in the usual “Epic Fantasy” sense of Erikson, Martin, Hobb, and so forth, but in its more ancient incarnation — more akin to the Iliad than Game of Thrones. (Here again, my ignorance may be showing, as it’s more than possible that Liu is using ancient Asian tales as his template, given the setting here, but I only know what I know, so I’m relegated to my Western Lit analogs.)
Being a fan of modern, and especially modernist literature, and preferring “character-driven” stories with a strong sense of that “interiority” I mentioned, I had a hard time getting into the Grace of Kings. It just wasn’t my usual cup of green tea. But because it all felt so purposeful, because Liu felt so wholly in control of form and structure and narration and style, it led me to trust in the craftsman more than I might normally have.
This sense of craft also began to arise in the way I started to notice the way “performance” kept rearing its head in action and imagery. It is a motif that works as well as an analogy for the way in which the novel is presented — as a performance, more exterior than interior, like players on a stage.
Time and again, these players (most frequently Kuni, but many others as well) note how they themselves, or those they’re speaking to, are playing a role — emperor, general, noble, father, mother. One character thinks of the tales of his family like, “the account of a family that lived only fairytales and shadow plays.” Kuni writes to Jia about a meeting with an adversary, “I hope my performance was convincing … Your Husband, performing the role of his life.” To his second wife, Risana, he makes a comparison between her smoke magic and leadership/politics, telling her: “Authority itself is a form of smokecraft. It relies on performance, stagecraft, and the power of suggestion.” Another time he thinks “he had no choice but to perform, though the performance may cost his friendship with Mata forever.” Jia shares Kuni’s talent, as her housekeeper tells her at one point, while also making a deeper point about performance: “If it’s a mask, it’s a very good mask … You and your husband are both natural actors, but if you’re performing, you’ve kept up that performance for your servants, for the powerless, for the low and base. Sometimes there is no distinction between the role and the player.” Meanwhile, characters slip in and out of disguise, maintain secrets, act as spies and double agents, play the loving wife, the admiring suitor, the lowliest traitor, the most loyal advisor.
One, Gin, hides herself as a boy for the longest time, eventually aging and maturing and moving up in power and respect until she can drop the pretense and attain a rank previously thought unattainable for women. The role of women — the parts they are relegated to, the parts they perform — is an important aspect of the latter half of the novel, and even as some move to their greatest effect within the tightly constricted paths they have available to them, we see as well how Kuni’s open-mindedness and his embrace of the future (as opposed to Mata’s reverence for the past and tradition) starts to slowly change the world so that those roles are expanded. His focus on the future as well allows him to adapt technologies that give him an edge in warfare, but more broadly, it gives him an edge in that it is what drives him ever onward when it would be much easier to simply live a family life: “Mata is the one who thinks the past was perfect, but I think we must perfect the present for the future … Now that I have seen the larger world, I wish to change it, as does Mata. But while he wishes to restore the world to a state that never was, I wish to bring it to a state that has not yet been seen.”
This is the conflict that propels most of the latter part of the book, beyond the more traditional conflict of the first half — an uprising against a brutal emperor. An emperor whose legacy is later re-evaluated even by those with most cause to despise him, in both a lesson for the complexities of the human individual and human history as well as perhaps a warning for those who come into a power of their own.
Like I said, it took me almost 300 pages to fully buy into The Grace of Kings, but I’m glad I persevered. While the novel does come to a resolution of sorts, the ending clearly raises questions for the future, and the epic/episodic nature of the structure also leaves lots of room for Liu to move the story of Dara forward. I’m eager to see where it goes. And if the sequel starts off a bit slow or off-putting, well, I’ll happily give him another 300 pages. Heck, let’s say another 400.
Excellent review, Bill. I can’t wait to read this one!
How exciting to see a novel from Ken Liu!