Book Review: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
Disclaimer: This review was based on a review copy sent to the reviewer.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Growing up, one of the discrepancies between my cultural zeitgeist and that of Western fandom is the absence of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the English magazines, music, and movies I was exposed to. While I had never read the source material, its influence was as inescapable as being a fantasy fan without reading Tolkien. I still remember booting up my 386 to play Romance of the Three Kingdoms II, a gift from my geeky uncle. It is weird watching the rising popularity of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, as the narrative technique is similar to that of Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the sense that the reader is exposed to multiple perspectives in a political war, as opposed to the good-vs-evil viewpoint of Lord of the Rings. And yet, A Song of Ice and Fire is also completely unlikely Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the parts that matter, such as the narrative decompression or the type of culture it exposes us to. This is where Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings triumphs as the spiritual successor, with its (relatively) brief narratives of individual skirmishes and battles, and how the focus shifts from general to general, from tragedy to tragedy.
Another important text to me is Legend of the Galactic Heroes — again, a series which I have not read the original source material — which is this massive space opera dealing with war and politics. I relate it to The Grace of Kings in the sense that both texts, despite featuring a massive cast, is anchored by two generals, each one with their own charisma and sense of purpose. That is not to say that Reinhard von Lohengramm and Yang Wen Li are anything like Mata Zyndu and Kuni Garu; far from it, although Yang Wen Li and Kuni Garu perhaps share the trait of being the most unexpected of tacticians (one quotes history, the other poetry). But with each battle that is won — or lost — we start to catch a glimpse of the larger story and how it plays not just in the politics of the narrative, but the theme of the series. If Legend of the Galactic Heroes poses the question whether a benevolent dictator or a corrupt democracy is better (a question that is very relevant to this post-Martial Law Filipino), Liu goes for something less overt and sprinkles his novel with multiple seeds. On one hand, you have the Dandelion vs. Chrysanthemum metaphor, a philosophy that can be extended to today’s practicality vs. aesthetic approach to Art. Another theme is the pervasiveness of subjective perception, of which not even the gods in the novel are immune to. And then there are our two protagonists, whose presence represent different ideals (much like how Reinhard and Yang Wen Li represent different but noble virtues in Legend of Galactic Heroes): one is a superhuman who aims to return to the order that was previously established, and does so with personal honor; or the crafty but nonetheless commoner who strives to revolutionize the empire, even if at times it requires the sacrifice of their reputation for the greater good. So whereas Legend of Galactic Heroes has this narrow focus in what it wants to address, the ambition of The Grace of Kings is vast. If Liu’s compact short stories explores a single idea or two, his novel allows him to delve into a gamut of possibilities, while still maintaining a consistent theme and topic. My question is if The Grace of Kings is merely the first novel in The Dandelion Dynasty, how far will the sequels branch out?
There is much to praise about The Grace of Kings, whether on the craft level (the addictiveness of Liu’s brief but energetic prose) or in terms of world-building (one of the few setting that breaks free from Tolkien’s shadow), but I want to address what might be perceived as a major shortcoming of the book. The problem with both Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Legend of Galactic Heroes is they are, for the most part, narratives with the male gaze in mind, and where the contributions of women are mostly invisible. For the first half of The Grace of Kings, it follows this pitfall, for as much as Jia Matiza and Princess Kikomi steal the show with their appearance, a bulk of the narrative still centers around male exploits. Liu is very much aware of this problem, at least as far as the narrative is concerned, and this patriarchal paradigm is subverted when we broach the last third of the book. Is the wait worth it? For this cis male reader, the answer is yes. For others? I don’t know, but hopefully, the answer will be much clearer when the sequels have been released. This step is also vital as it showcases a genuine shift. In Legend of the Galactic Heroes, no matter how much each side wins or loses, for the most part, the popular paradigm is maintained. In The Grace of Kings, the revolution that Kuni Garu represents involves shaking up the status quo, and there is a significant shift when it comes to the last third of the book.
Another highlight of The Grace of Kings is how methodical a lot of the processes in the book are, whether it’s scientific discoveries or methods of bureaucracy like taxation. I am not a fan of genre boundaries, and the novel feels like a melding of the best elements of what some fans would associate as traits of epic fantasy and science fiction. If some readers will skew Frank Herbert’s Dune or even George Lucas’s Star Wars as science fiction due to the setting, they ignores the high fantasy elements of those texts. In the same way, it’s tempting to lump The Grace of Kings as epic fantasy (and it is epic fantasy), but the political machinations and developments (whether social or the “hard” sciences) is just as meaty and satisfying as any science fiction series.
The benefit of fantasy is that Liu is not afraid to veer away from the source material, and spiritually embodies the same revolution his protagonists represent. The Grace of Kings isn’t a historical novel, although elements are taken from history, and it is better for it. This is a modern novel with modern sensibilities, and that includes the author being able to experiment and imagine — and as a reader, this sense of wonder is what contributes to the fun and excitement. Why do we write? Why do we read? The Grace of Kings isn’t simply another rehashing of an established, popular story, but a bridge between two kinds of narratives, invested with both gravity and entertainment.
There’s a lot to unpack in The Grace of Kings, whether from a personal perspective or in terms of the industry at large. It’s a novel influenced by both Western and Chinese culture, both short stories and novels, fantasy as well as science fiction. We’ve read enough narratives that are regressive and aim to return to an idyllic past; The Grace of Kings is a revolution.