Vagabonds – Dirty Unwashed Potential

81nxmr1dtrlVagabonds, by Hao Jingfang, is the latest Chinese science fiction novel that Ken Liu has skillfully translated from its native tongue for readers’ enjoyment. While I really hope this trend continues and begins to branch out to every culture possible, I find myself struggling to grasp and enjoy Chinese Science Fiction every time I foray into it. When I dug into the Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, I was fairly sure the issue was with me and my rudimentary understanding of Chinese culture. However, when it came to Vagabonds I had a much harder time pinning down what wasn’t clicking.

On its surface, Vagabonds has an interesting premise that would capture the heart of any fan of golden age sci-fi. Earth is a capitalist paradise, while Mars is a Socialist utopia, and they do not get along. After many years of war, a ceasefire is announced and a selection of students from both worlds are allowed to travel between the planets and put on a miniature world’s fair to display the brilliance and achievements of their home planets. We follow the POV of two individuals, one from Earth and one from Mars, who find themselves changed by their time on their respective new planets. Each of these POVs returns home to find themselves different from their peers and incompatible with their old homes. The story is about these protagonists trying to reconcile what they learned while away from home and prevent future conflict across the stars.

Initially, I was really enjoying Vagabonds. The premise is cool, the culture shock is captivating, the world-building is engaging, and the theoretical ideas surrounding capitalism and socialism by Jingfang feel like fresh takes that I was keen to hear more of. But, my joy and engagement did not last. As the book continues to chug along, and the perspective shifts from a split POV to focusing primarily on a single character, my interest began to wane. Vagabonds feels like it suffers way too much from long and uninteresting self-reflecting eulogies from its cast, and ideas that are just not deep enough to support its gigantic page count.

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the names of any of the POVs and cast, and that is because I cannot remember any of them. The characters are all unmemorable and fairly dull, which makes the fact that the book explores their feelings about every gust of wind and falling leaf drag on the reader like swimming with lead weights. The more that the book shifted from its core arguments of capitalism vs. socialism to the exploration of how its boring cast felt about events – the less I liked it. There are still some great ideas in the story, but they are absolutely not worth the amount of time it took me to dig them out of the rest of the filler.

Vagabonds is a book with a powerful premise that lacks in execution. Its enormous page count is unwarranted, and its characters carry the story about as well as sieves carry water. If you are a huge fan of golden age science-fiction and if you don’t mind a clunky narrative with an unwieldy page count, you might really enjoy it. But, if you find yourself having to choose between Vagabonds or a different enticing read – I would likely recommend that you go with the later.

Rating: Vagabonds – 5.0/10

Broken Stars – Wholeheartedly Good

I recently decided to treat myself by purchasing Broken Stars, a collection of contemporary Chinese speculative fiction curated and translated by Ken Liu. The collection had been showing up a lot on my Amazon queue, and while I was out at the store I decided “why not?” I had never really read a collection of non-horror short stories that weren’t by the same author. I was not originally planning on writing about Broken Stars, but the more stories I read, the more magnetic the book became, and I would feel ashamed if I did not use my platform to evangelize about the magic of this collection. Featuring sixteen stories from fourteen authors, Broken Stars is an incredible feast of Chinese science fiction.

First off, the collection feels incredibly personal. Ken Liu does a fantastic job of introducing the authors, their perspectives, backgrounds, and interests prior to each story. Sometimes he would even provide a framing of how the story can be read and enjoyed, especially when some of the cultural context may be lost on Western readers. It was very helpful, especially since most of my education on Chinese history ended in high school. It felt like he held out his hand to the reader and took you on your very own personal journey into the stories he loves. His introductions  made the whole experience very welcoming, and dissipated a lot of the anxiety I had about “not getting it.” On top of all that I think Liu did an excellent job of ordering the stories as well. He slowly dug deeper and deeper into Chinese history with each successive story, occasionally breaking up the intensity with something lighter. I never felt confused by what was happening, as some of the more Chinese stories had annotations to clue the reader in.

The hardest part about this review is actually talking about the stories in the book. They all felt incredibly special in some way, making it tough to choose which to highlight here. Liu himself even mentions in the foreword that he did not try to make a “best-of” compilation, opting instead for more variety. He certainly succeeds, as each story had its own personality, exploring different modes of storytelling, covering a plethora of science fiction staples, and exploring ideas I had never really considered reading before. Particularly of interest to me were the stories that dealt with time and the individual’s place within society. I’ll talk about three of the stories here to jump-start interest.

First off is Moonlight by Liu Cixin, of The Three Body Problem fame. It’s one of the shorter stories, but Liu Cixin makes it work overtime. It follows a man who feels he can contribute nothing to the world, as he receives phone calls from himself in the future. Each version of himself calls him to warn of the future and sends the present version detailed plans on how to solve the crisis. However, each time he thinks about sending out the plans to get to work, the future changes, prompting another future version of himself to call to explain the new problem. It’s a fun and somewhat daunting story that shows the power of the individual to help change society, for better or worse. The ending is harrowing but conveys the message perfectly.

Possibly my favorite story is What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear by Baoshu. It follows Xie Baosheng, a boy born in 2012, or as the first paragraph ends “I was born on the day the world was supposed to end,” as he grows up and experiences our past as his future. Meaning when he turns one, it’s 2011, when he turns four, it’s 2008 and so on and so forth. On its own, watching events unfold in reverse order is powerful enough the idea is powerful enough, watching the events happen again in reverse order. Major events in world and modern Chinese history still occur with new context as they are played backwards. However, Baoshu is not content with just replaying the second half of the twentieth century. The story itself is incredibly human, showcasing how easy it is for one’s life to get swept up in the passage of time. Major life events are competing with the ever-changing state of the world on equal footing. As Baosheng gets older, his decisions are met with more and more inertia from his earlier life and the new expectations of society. It is one of the longer stories, but honestly, buying the book for just this story would have been worth it.

Lastly, on the funnier side is The First Emperor’s Games by Ma Bodong. Following the First Emperor’s unification of China, the emperor becomes an avid computer game player. Once you accept the absurd premise that an emperor from 221 BC is playing video games, the story flows in an entertaining fashion. Liu mentions that this particular story might require some extensive use of Wikipedia to understand the more Chinese aspects of the humor, I still found it quite entertaining on my first run without the extra knowledge. It follows the Emperor as his myriad of advisors suggests different popular computer games to pass his time such as Civilization or The Sims. It’s a fun read that gets deeper the more you understand about ancient Chinese history and philosophy, so definitely take a few passes at it as you learn more from the internet.

There are a few stories that stand out to me in particular, but ultimately the whole collection is enjoyable. It’s refreshing to have read such a wide variety of stories from an incredible spectrum of voices. I’m glad I decided to step outside of my literary comfort zone to enjoy this collection, and it certainly has spurred me to look for more translated fiction. I do not feel comfortable giving a score to collection as a whole, or even to the individual stories. What I will say is that the work Ken Liu put into creating this collection, and translating it to English clearly shows. And if you’re looking for something different, but with a tang of familiarity, I highly recommend Broken Stars.

Rating: Broken Stars – Enjoyable, Deep, and Worth Your Time/10

The Wall Of Storms – A Book So Large, You Could Use It In Liu Of A Weapon

wallofstormsJune of 2017 has been a crazy month of great book releases, and I have a ton of interesting reviews coming up for the many books that have come out. However, before I get to any of these hot potatoes, I need to take a moment to talk about a big release from the end of last year: The Wall of Storms, by Ken Liu. Ken Liu made a huge splash in the fantasy world with his incredible short stories, in particular his story Paper Menagerie that I guarantee will make you cry. He then followed that up by translating a world famous science fiction novel, The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin, from Chinese to English, before finally moving on to start publishing his own fantasy series. His series began with The Grace of Kings, a book that made a big splash for its original setting but has seemed to fade a bit from existence. I was a fan of the first book, and I was surprised more people didn’t seem pumped for the sequel because it is definitely worth checking out.

The Wall of Storms, much like its predecessor, is a very difficult book to review. I couldn’t really put my finger on it when I was reviewing Grace, but upon finishing Storms I have realized its because they are so damn large (almost 900 pages) that they are each really two books. Each half of the book tells a continuous story, but in two distinct arcs. The problem is I had very different feelings about the arcs making the book as a whole difficult to talk about as a collective piece. So, instead I am going to review them separately.

Arc I: When we left off with book one, the Dara empire had just be reunified and we had reentered a time of peace. The first part of the book is about infrastructure, and I never thought I would say this: I loved it. It felt like a really good look into Asian philosophies, allowed for some great character development of older characters, and introduced a fantastic new cast from the next generation in the story. It reminded me a lot of Game of Thrones, in the sense that we are now getting a look at what it takes to maintain a “happily ever after”. Seeing the small changes to the countries structure and government was thrilling, and watching people play political games in the peace that follows war was awesome. I have almost no negatives from the first half of the book and I feel like I would have given it a 9.5/10.

Arc II: Here is where we start running into some problems. In the second half of the story we go back to war, this time against an external threat. New villains have arisen from behind the impassable wall of storms that isolated the island of Dara from the rest of the world and it puts the new country to the test. While there was a lot of good in this second act, it did have some points I was not fond of. I thought that while some of the military engagements were awesome, a few felt lack luster. The Gods of Dara, which are part of the appeal of this series for me, are largely absent in the second arc. Finally, one of the things that Ken Liu does really well is impart a sense of impartiality in his books. The characters all feel like real people, and there is no plot armor to protect them from the ravishes of time and history. By doing this he makes his books feel like a blend of fantasy and historical fiction, which I really like. The problem with this is sometimes he WILL give a few characters plot armor, and it makes the events stand out negatively with how he treats the rest of the cast. It makes it hard to swallow when some favorite characters die “as that’s just the way the world is sometimes” compared to when some characters seem to walk-off having mountains dropped on them. However,I still found the second arc a great read, even with its flaws: 8.0/10.

This series continues to be one of the most original and interesting ones I have picked up. While I am sure some people are going to hate its style, I think it is worthwhile for all fantasy fans to try it out and see what they think for themselves. The story has some really great morals and philosophies that I love, and I really don’t know where Liu is taking the plot – which excites me. So considering all of that, it should be no surprise that The Quill to Live definitely recommends (a second time) you pick up The Grace of Kings or continue with The Wall of Storms.

Rating: The Wall of Storms – 8.5/10

The Grace of Kings – There But For The Grace of The Gods, Kings Go

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.

Rating: 8.0/10