A friend once told me the story of an enormous fish, Kun, that turns into an enormous bird, Peng, so huge that it must gain thousands of feet in elevation before it can fly — but once it does, it flies so far and so fast that it crosses oceans the way sparrows flit from branch to branch.
I was reminded of this while reading Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings — a magnificent fantasy epic that is deeply concerned with the high, the low and the movement of people and power between them. It's a book interested in the depth and breadth of empires and nation-states, from the mythic scope of battles to the minutiae of taxes — but its innovation lends grandeur to taxes and turns mighty battles into administrivia. Like Peng, it takes some effort to lift off — I needed a few chapters to learn a wide cast of characters and different points on the map — but once airborne, the view is breathtaking.
Emperor Mapidéré was the first to unite the island kingdoms of Dara under the rule of Xana, his own island. But 23 years into his rule, the Xana Empire is showing signs of strain; Mapidéré is on his deathbed, the gods are angry, counselors plot for their own future gains and the Emperor's cruelties and vast, conscriptive engineering projects have left the populace with little to lose and everything to gain by rebelling.
Against this backdrop we follow Kuni Garu, a charismatic ne'er-do-well more interested in bragging and drinking than an honest day's work, and Mata Zyndu, an 8-foot-tall man with double-pupiled eyes who seems to have stepped out of legend, the last in a long line of martial nobility particularly savaged by Mapidéré. Their paths cross, and their unlikely friendship seems like it could break the Empire's back — but what comes after that is far less clear, and the stakes, like Peng, keep rising.
Liu's world is beautiful, nuanced, fierce, original and diverse; it's refreshing to read doorstop fantasy in which the geographies and cultures aren't Europe-with-more-apostrophes. But neither does this feel like alt-China: It reads much more like a world invented than transposed, and the warring states of Dara draw on a multitude of influences and references without being reductive fantasy-world allegories of any of them.
Its mode of composition is also fascinating to me: Where something like A Game of Thrones takes a period of history as its source material, The Grace of Kings feels much more in conversation with works of medieval romance and folk stories as it builds its epic architecture, with the rather surprising result that it also feels far more immersive and realistic. The book is as much a tug of war between Mata and Kuni as it is between romance tradition and folk tradition, a contest to determine who will absorb whom into which kind of story.
But falling through the cracks between these dueling traditions — in a way the book itself seems to realize is a problem — are the women.
Let me be clear: My problem with the treatment and representation of women in The Grace of Kings is several orders of magnitude lower than my problems with, say, A Game of Thrones. There, in the dubious name of historical accuracy, sexualized violence against women is the order of the day and the air everyone breathes.
The Grace of Kings is in many ways very respectful of women — but also tied up in knots about how to rescue them from medieval literary conventions. At one point, a key character has a heartfelt, beautiful conversation with another woman about her constricted options — yet she remains confined. Over and over women seem to speak against their place in stories written by men, but are powerless to change them — as if Liu knows the work ahead of him but is uncertain of how to undertake it in the world he's invented.
But then, marvelously, he changes the world.
The last third of the book is rife with emotional whiplash, shocking rises in and reversals of fortune — and tremendous hope for the sequel: Liu is building a dynasty, playing a long game, and I'm very interested in seeing it through to its conclusion. I'm astonished to note that this is a debut, that Liu can pull something like this off after an amazing, award-sweeping run of short fiction. Having taken off, the heights and distances I expect this series to reach and cover are staggering, and I can't wait for more.