A little while ago I heard about a short story called The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu (click here) that was going around and impressing a lot of people that I take seriously. I am not a huge short fiction person myself, but I thought what the hell, it isn’t that long I will just read it over lunch at work. Thus began a day where I had to explain to about 10 coworkers why I was sobbing at my desk like a child whose dog just died. It is a very impressive emotional piece and it put me on the watch for Ken Liu and made his future work a must buy. Thus, when Ken Liu debuted his first major novel, The Grace of Kings, to raving reviews I found myself very excited to pick it up.
The Grace of Kings is a history of a world more than anything else. The book follows a variety of viewpoints ranging from lowly peasant to all powerful deities as they all shape history around them. The story takes place on a large group of islands that are all divided into a series of nations, each with their own patron god with a set of attributes that they represent. The gods are much like the Greek pantheon, each an embodiment of things such as war, agriculture, wisdom, flight, etc. and each squabbling with all their siblings for supremacy. We start at the end of a war where one of the nations, their people, and their patron god, have subjugated the rest of the islands and established themselves as kings of all. As you would expect, the other nations and the rest of the pantheon are not partial to this situation and shortly after the book begins a new war is brewing.
The Grace of Kings is most definitely an epic fantasy, but it brings a lot of new things to the table. As I mentioned before the book reads like a history. There are no real good guys or bad guys in the book. There are certainly favorites, but there are about 15 different “sides” to really choose from. The book often feels like a twisted and perverted version of a game night for the gods. A ritual period of time put aside where the deities test their mettle against one another by using their unseen influence to try and help their people establish dominance. While it sounds like a fun time for the gods, it results in war, oppression, death, and despair for most of the people caught in their machinations. However, not all people are smothered by the play of the gods. For the champions of the gods, the kings of the various factions, fortunes are just as likely to rise to epic proportions as they are to fall. The stories of these various kings, with their rise to and fall from grace (see what I did there), make up the majority of the story.
The setting of these conflicts is well done and refreshing. The style blends a mix of Eastern and Western influences to create something I have heard referred to as “Silk-punk”. There are both elements of Asian settings and a healthy dose of steam-punk technology to create a unique island world. Despite my comparison to the Greek pantheon, the Gods of the islands are a really interesting take on deities and leave you wanting more. The topography of the islands is varied, thoroughly thought out, and gives all of the nations different flavors and personalities. In addition, the islands are apparently only the tip of the world and I really look forward to learning more in future books. The books also take place in an age of invention and change, constantly adding new factors and elements to the conflicts. All of this result in a book that is constantly filling you with senses of wonder, surprise, and curiosity.
On the negative side, while all of the factors I have listed about created an incredible world with a breakneck plot, it left me slightly wanting for a better emotional connection with many of the characters. I was very impressed by Ken Liu’s demonstrated ability to forge strong emotional connections in short periods in The Paper Menagerie, but I felt he came up short on that very factor in The Grace of Kings. It is highly likely that the historical viewpoint from which the book is told is a large factor in this, but it still disappointed me slightly as I was very much looking forward to seeing more of a deeply emotional piece.
Despite those complaints, I really enjoyed the book as a whole and am very curious to see where Ken Liu is going to take the next book in the series. Unlike many epic fantasies I have read, Grace of Kings feels like it reaches a pretty definitive stopping point at the end of the book (where I would have been fairly satisfied if it was a standalone). Either way, The Grace of Kings is a good book that showcases a new set of talents for Ken Liu and I look forward to his next work.