Ready for some silk punk? That’s right, silk punk is a thing now. Award-winning short story writer Ken Liu has really gone for it with his first novel, riffing on source material familiar to every Chinese person, primarily Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Han Dynasty founding myths.
The Lanzhou-born author moved to the States when he was 11, and grew up listening to classic Chinese tales with his grandmother, all the time marinating himself in Western science fiction and fantasy. The result: yes, silk punk.
In The Grace of Kings, an oppressive emperor who has forcefully united traditionally warring states faces rebellion, which is pretty much the background to every Chinese legend – and it’s obvious as the plot develops that the founding of the Han Dynasty is a big reference point.
Yet none of China’s great rulers made use of airships kept afloat by volcanic gas, or rode giant sea creatures to battle, or rigged up individual hang-gliders. (As far as we know – historical records are spotty at best.)
The plot is complicated, but essentially Emperor Mapidéré has led the Xana Conquest, uniting the Seven States of Dara for the first time. His cruelty and use of slave labor means peace is brief, though.
Over a series of battles and betrayals, two principal leaders arise to defeat him, then eventually go to war themselves. Mata Zyndu (history experts: think Xiang Yu) is a classic hero type, driven by codes of honor, personal loyalty and the desire to restore things to their rightful place. Kuni Garu (think Liu Bang) is the lazy but smart pragmatist, who transforms from a ruffian to a great leader of men.
It’s an intriguing setting, and often beautifully rendered. Liu has a flair for the spectacular set piece and moves things along with unbelievable speed. Hardly have we settled in for the long struggle against Emperor Mapidéré than he is gone, and we are dealing with the aftermath as the victors squabble over the spoils.
He does great work with pacing too, with fights to the death and dramatic turnarounds interspersed with quieter, more thoughtful chapters.
The role of women in a feudal society is pondered, and there is a female general and an all-woman battalion. Hallucinogenic herbs play a surprising role. A plot that seems about to veer towards marital jealousy and banal conflict is resolved when Kuni Garu and his wife Jia actually sit down and discuss their relationship as equals, which is unexpected and very satisfying.
Liu gets one thing so wrong, however, that for some it may throw off the novel. The gods observe and intervene as they take sides in the mortal struggle.
We can see that Liu is making it clear that this is not just an alternative version of our world, where anyone claiming mystic powers is by definition a fraud – there is a divine realm in Dara. But every scene with the gods is clunky and painful, and we groaned every time a simple mortal suddenly revealed himself or herself to be a god in disguise.
The Grace of Kings is all about storytelling. The world Liu creates is interesting in its borrowings from ancient Chinese and Japanese culture, and its steam punk elements are lots of fun, but it’s not in any way convincing.
This isn’t the place to look for characters that are in any way psychologically plausible; there’s nobody here you could imagine having a normal conversation.
And it has to be said that if you’re looking for exquisite writing, this is not the book for you. Liu’s invention and originality is sadly not matched by his prose.
There’s a lot of this kind of thing: “All this, his rightful inheritance, had been soiled by the pig who had usurped his place and summoned them there.”
Or this: “Mata gave a contemptuous laugh. ‘What need is there for a shield when my enemies will die before three strokes?’”
This may be snobbish criticism of a genre work, but the writing did take us out of the story. It’s hard not to compare it with the recent novels of Guy Gavriel Kay we have reviewed in That’s, which cover similar ground of Chinese history and myth, but bring the world and characters alive through psychological depth and subtle prose.
In classic genre style, this is the first of a trilogy, and despite our issues with the execution, Liu is on to a good thing here. Under the genre sheen and frustrating banality of too much of the writing, this is a novel of ideas and a clear-eyed examination of what it means to rule.
Liu is doing something very different to Game of Thrones, but they both make one thing clear: when heroes go to war, the laobaixing get it in the neck.
> Ken Liu: The Grace of Kings (Saga Press) is available on Amazon.
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