If I was going to say only one thing about Speaking Bones, the final book in Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty quartet, it would be that it is certainly its own thing. I know all of that sounds inelegant, but I got into a heated Reddit argument about this series earlier today, and arguing on an internet forum feels like it has regressed my ability to speak eloquently. The argument was actually somewhat interesting. There was a post asking why this series isn’t more well-read. Like me, the asker found the Dandelion Dynasty to be a raft of originality in a sea of sameness. However, there were a number of people in the comments calling it incomprehensible garbage (which is why I got out my pitchfork). The real takeaway of all of this is that Ken Liu has made something different, wholly his own, and it likely will be polarizing.
Speaking Bones is a book I have greatly looked forward to for a number of reasons. See, one of the things about the Dandelion Dynasty that makes it stand out is the utter indifference that Liu has to plot armor. Both for characters’ lives and what they stand for. The books follow an endless cycle of conflict between two warring nations and the families that lead both. Throughout the first three books, we have seen so many characters with ideas, ethos, philosophies, and life lessons that have been tested by circumstance. Some have failed instantly, others have fallen apart over time, but some are still standing as we go into this fourth and final book. Liu has always made sure to play his feelings on the myriad of morally complicated events of these books close to his chest, allowing the reader to explore and consider the many possible ideologies that are presented. However, Speaking Bones is the end, and we finally get to see Liu’s hand and figure out which ideas triumph, though whether by chance or righteousness is still up to the reader to decide.
The fourth book is so fitting yet unexpected that it really brightened up my days, despite its often sad contents. In particular, it was fascinating to watch the children of our original cast finally find their place in the world and make their marks. The generational character growth in this story is really something I haven’t seen at this scope before and this feels like the end of a 10-year project in watching how people’s lives evolve.
The philosophical debates in Bones are engrossing and upsetting in their nebulous solutions, and I am still undecided on many of them. Is letting someone get away with absolutely heinous crimes and forcing their victims to live with the misery caused by said crimes worth stopping a cycle of violence from perpetuating? The book makes very solid arguments for both yes and no. Even the epilogue has an aura of “but at what cost to it” and it easily has some of the most memorable ideas and arguments I have read this year.
Also, Speaking Bones is just weird in the best way possible. This is true about all books in the series, but Bones really dials it up. The prose and structure of the storytelling are just very different from your typical epic fantasy and I am assuming that comes from Liu’s blending of Chinese and American storytelling into a unique concoction wholly his own, but this is just supposition on my part. The worldbuilding is certainly some of the most unhinged, fun, and ridiculous I have read in a science-fantasy book. By the end of Speaking Bones, some of the characters had used magic to build bootstrapped predator drones and I absolutely loved it. The old fantasy trope of “discovering gunpowder to gain a technological advantage” is so played out in the genre that I hate it. But, Liu uses his silkpunk setting to go so far beyond this basic premise that I couldn’t help but strap in for his wild ride. The combination of intense exacting science and wild whimsical magic creates a show for the ages.
Love it (like I did) or hate it (like those wrong people on the internet) this series is one of a kind and Speaking Bones represents a perfect ending. Its original narrative structure, exploration of technology, heavy themes, and momentous characters has cemented the Dandelion Dynasty as one of the best things I have read in years. Despite the series being over 4,000 pages long, you owe it to yourself to check it out for yourself.
Speaking Bones – 9.0/10
Dandelion Dynasty – 9.0/10