Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings is, in a nutshell, an epic fantasy that has equal strengths and weaknesses. Sort of like the main protagonists of the novel. I literally just finished it, and cannot think of one character I actually think deserves to be “King” or “win” in the end. In that way, it is very much like Game of Thrones – in that the characters presented are real humans with flaws and weaknesses. A fact that often makes it hard to care about them.
The strength of this novel is no doubt the world building. I have no memory of where I read this, but some article or author once mentioned that anyone writing a fantasy novel cannot even begin to start without drawing a map first. Liu’s attention to detail, and his simplistic map (with no mention of “Misty Mountains” or “Forest of Doom” thank you) is easy enough to remember and keep in your mind as you read the complex martial games that are played out over the landscape.
The weakness, however, was the characters. I understand Liu drew from Chinese history, specifically the Han Dynasty, to flesh out his plot and characters. But the main rivalry is predictable and honestly a little annoying. We watch as the bond of brotherhood between two strong-willed men evolves into enmity and outright war over the length of several years. I have to admit I saw this coming as soon as the characters were respectively introduced as being favoured by the gods and strong in their own ways. Not to say this isn’t a trope of fantasy fiction. We all remember Boromir, right? The problem is mostly that Mata Zyndu, the stronger and pettier one of the two is basically a huge stroppy teenager, and Kuni Garu is a philandering gangster. I didn’t root for either of them (#QueenGin).
It’s also frustrating to still be reading epic fantasy novels in 2016 that sideline and make little use of female characters, other than to have one magically rise above the others and the rest be supportive and understanding wives. This is an innate problem in fantasy since the genre is widely based on historical tropes and hierarchies. The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones rely widely on Western Medieval history. Liu’s drawing on Chinese history obviously affects his modern narrative. It’s both unnecessary and completely a part of the genre that I didn’t even notice it was bothering me until there came the chance for Gin to rise up and potentially take more control and I found myself chanting QUEEN GIN QUEEN GIN silently inside my head. What an ending that would have been! There are more than a handful of women characters, but they inhabit such traditional roles such as “tavern wench” or “capable wife who is happy to sit in the sidelines” or “jeaous wife who is happy to sit in the sidelines”. Although one of the more emotional plot points centers around a group of women making use of their emotional connection to men to help win a battle. That was unexpected both for the men in battle and for the reader.
Regardless of gender issues, the story is hugely detailed and immersive. Each part of Liu’s world has traditions and side-characters which populate this epic story. Often they are even the more emotional stories to follow. The two brothers Dafo and Rat, who separate to follow their chosen leaders while Mata and Kuni are still friends and later realise they now follow enemies evoke the biggest heartbreak of the entire story.
The discussion of which kind of rule would actually benefit the classes below the aristocracy is an interesting addition. The benefits of any other type other than ‘full-on Monarchy’ (a technical term) is never discussed in most Epics. The assumption is just that everyone will fight for their chosen Monarch and then submit to be ruled by them until they die. There is a moment towards the end of the book where soldiers fighting for Kuni Garu make eye contact with farmers who are watching as the soldiers walk over their land but do nothing because, when it all comes down to it, what does it matter who rules as long as they are able to feed their families? This is the sort of detail that is unique to Ken Liu’s narrative and what I personally found the most compelling part of his writing.