Book Review: The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu
Disclaimer: This review was based on a review copy sent to the reviewer.
There is a dilemma when writing a sequel. One option is to deliver more of the same. The other — and perhaps riskier path— is to simultaneously juggle innovation while honoring the spirit of what came before. One of the few series’s that successfully pulls off the latter is Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris books: each novel is written in a different tone and possesses a distinct theme, but is nonetheless faithful to its originalmilieu. And that is, perhaps, what The Wall of Storms is attempting.
Why is change necessary? It reminds me of Philippine history, where there were three distinct eras of colonization. Perhaps the most romanticized was the Spanish subjugation, as this was not only the longest period of colonization, but also a period ripe with rebellion and military conflict. Less romanticized — but perhaps just as embellished — was the American colonial period, where politics and intrigue were the tools used by our ancestors to regain our freedom. It’s a stark contrast from the Spanish years, but it was nonetheless important and pivotal. The third era was the Japanese invasion which, while brief, came as a surprise, and brought its own unique baggage and tragedies. If The Grace of Kings was the equivalent of Spain’s colonization, the sequel captures the spirit of the other milestones, reflecting a narrative that is as unpredictable and evolving, and evading the safety net of formula.
In writing epic fantasy, one ideal is to have everything written down before it is published — unless we want to run into the risk of writing ourselves into a corner or waiting too long before the story arc is concluded. But one of the advantages of writing while readers are responding to the first novel is that there is this dialogue between author and reader. Liu is capable of responding to readers and critics — and I would like to think the direction of The Wall of Storms was shaped by feedback and not simply a solipsistic exercise of art and vision.
And you know what? I think this novel is better for it. Whereas its predecessor held back in characterizing one half of the human population in the first book, women take center stage in this novel. There are all sorts of representation: women as leaders, women as innovators, women as soldiers, women as heroes, women as villains. They are all complex, possessing different virtues and hubris, and while Liu isn’t the first to include such representation in epic fantasy, at least Liu is acknowledging the shortcomings of his initial novel, and does so with as much meticulousness (and perhaps mischievousness) as the most memorable characters of The Grace of Kings.
There is also the generational aspect of the book, which focuses on legacy. Protagonists from the previous novel engage with the new characters and establish a continuity. The new characters are shaped by what came before, but are not limited by their predecessor’s choices. It’s perhaps an apt metaphor for a sequel: paving new ground while respecting what was established.
One of the themes in the novel that personally strikes me is the greater emphasis on cultural warfare rather than relying on military escapades (although there is no shortage of the latter) to drive interest. How does a ruler change the mentality of its people? What are we willing to sacrifice to enforce these ideals? Is there a truly moral choice, and are we willing to pay their cost?
Again, the strength of Liu isn’t that these answers are explicit, but that the novel attempts to explore the answers to these questions and explores their implications. In that aspect, it rivals, if not surpasses, the science fiction novels that focuses on politics.
Sophomore novels in a trilogy tend to be dullest or simply the sacrificial book for the third act. That’s not the case with The Wall of Storms, which surpasses the first novel in every aspect, while still promising readers something revolutionary.