Sunday, April 12, 2015

Grace of Kings - Ken Liu

Ken Liu’s debut novel, Grace of Kings is what the author calls ‘silkpunk’, which at heart is an intriguing merger between the ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’-esque tradition of historical tales in ancient China, and the newer ethos of Steampunk. So we have Emperors shuttled around on airships. Battles fought for honour and territory, by men with artificial arms powered by wound sinew. We have drinking, debauchery, and individuals who can influence minds with smoke. It’s a heady mix, and Liu manages to hold it all together exceedingly well.

The start of the narrative also defines, to some extent, the path that the reader takes through it. An Emperor has forcefully united the lands of a large archipelago, striving to bring the people together, to break apart old bonds, and create something new. There are, of course, several different factions that are unhappy about this, including what passes for the remaining aristocracy of the islands, upset at losing their hereditary power and privilege, and many of the more underprivileged as well – now resentful of the harshness of Imperial rule, seeking a more equitable settlement.

From the above, Grace of Kings can be read as a story of rebellion, of grand scale politics. But it’s also a very personal set of stories. Both the above factions, along with several others, are led by strong personalities. The way that they interact with each other is at the core of the novel – one an aristocrat, consumed with duty, determined to return to a past that is seen as glorious, where everyone knew their proper place – and the other, a rogue, a man looking to the future, to make the world work better for those without a voice, without anyone to speak for them. That these two men become friends is something of a miracle – and Liu presents it to us organically, slowly, letting the reader drink in the differences in the personalities, the ways in which they clash and combine to make something great as they struggle against the entrenched forces of a new Empire. But this careful articulation of character also leaves questions about what may happen if the two men succeed – personal friends, their agenda so radically different that they can be driven into enmity. It’s a potent combination, and one which makes for an intriguing read.

Given the grand scope of the plot, wrapping it up in these personal tales is an excellent device - it gives each of the broader themes a face, a personality. It helps, however, that the prose is absolutely outstanding. In some areas – when depicting violence, for example, in grand or small scale – it’s quite dry, not reveling in events, simply depicting them. At other times – in personal conversations, in descriptions of surrounding areas – it can be languid, drawing the reader into the created world, drawing a vivid picture of somewhere that feels quite special. At others – portraying the emotions between protagonists – it can be wire-taut, pressing down on the reader with the tensions and ties between characters.

Grace of Kings is, itself, quite special. It’s carefully formed a narrative of epic scope around an emotionally strong personal story. Both these strands of thought are wrapped in a wonderfully drawn world, perfectly pitched to blend existing narrative traditions in an exciting way.

In summary – Grace of kings is very much worth your time. I went in not knowing what to expect, and was absolutely blown away. Definitely worth a look.

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