The Veiled Throne, by Ken Liu
The Veiled Throne, by Ken Liu
I can't imagine the kind of courage it takes to set out to write an epic.
I mean, to do it on purpose. Not to slide into it accidentally. Not to write one book that sees some success and becomes two or three or ten. Because those kinds of series? You can taste the small ambition in them right from the very start.
And I'm not saying that's a good thing or a bad thing, just a different thing. An epic is an epic right from the very start. It begins as an epic, has to keep that flame burning on every page, and cross the finish line with worlds having been shattered and forever changed. When you sit down to write an epic, you are taking the fates of millions into your hands. Every choice made on the page becomes about reach and scope and eternity, playing with lives like grains of sand and time on a calendar that can measure centuries. It is a big undertaking.
Ken Liu's new Dandelion Dynasty book, The Veiled Throne, is more than a thousand pages long. That's a thousand pages of garinafins and axe fights, courtly intrigue and cooking competitions. The Wall of Storms has been crossed, the invasion of Dara by the Lyucu is complete (though tenuous) as reinforcements are awaited, so Liu offers us a thousand pages of tension, of waiting and plotting and scheming between disparate, xenophobic cultures. A thousand pages of city ships and poisonings and language lessons and gods reborn; of love affairs and philosophical riddles, art history and the coolest, strangest naval battle I think I've ever seen on the page.
No, seriously. There's a giant puppet show in the middle of it. And a bamboo submarine assault. I swear I am not making any of this up.
A thousand pages is a lot, though. Veiled Throne is easy to bounce off of, to get lost in as characters, places, sometimes years flicker by. The epic form — and the epic length at which Liu plays — gives him room to breathe. To get weird and go deep. Did we need a dozen pages discussing the use of a camera obscura? That depends on how interested you are in the camera obscura, I suppose. Half-a-hundred on a piece of digressive, bloody, allegorical mythology about sea creatures? What matters is how invested you get in the allegorical game Liu (and his characters) are playing.
There's Liu's voice to hold onto, though — beautifully deployed here and fully in command of the language of his imaginary universe. He balances his digressions with grounded emotion, relationships that develop and change over time, small moments — an inside joke, an unlikely friendship, smells and sounds rendered in loving detail — that root his action and diversions in the extremely personal. Sometimes he manages this balance with near-miraculous emotional deftness (as with Toof and Radia, the adopted Lyucu garinafin riders traveling with Princess Thera and her Agon husband, Takval, or the repeated meetings of Goztan and the storyteller Oga). Occasionally, it comes with a sweep-everything-off-the-table abruptness that can bounce you right out of the narrative.
This sense of balance has also been the larger organizing principle of Liu's entire series. The first book, Grace Of Kings, was about rebellion and war, and the second, Wall Of Storms, was about invasion, family dynamics and the dangerous myths inherited by the children of self-made royalty. Kings was about the deeds of men, Storms focused largely on women. Kings had an obsession with the past and Storms was mainly concerned with the future.
It's not a tightrope balance, but a mathematical one — an adding and a taking away. Together, the first two books presented the Dara and the Dandelion Court as heroes and scholars, the imperfect but civilizing force of the world arrayed against the savage, clannish Lyucu. The Veiled Throne, in turn, upends that. Here, the Lyucu are examined in full. Their history and culture, their hatred of the Dara (and the reasons for it), their deep connection to the land are all brought to the forefront of a story that eschews male/female posturing for the compromise of relationships; that subverts racial scapegoating (or championing) for a long, sometimes philosophical, sometimes bloody discussion of cultural assimilation in the wake of Liu's wars and invasions. If Kings and Storms are stories of wars fought over past sins and prejudices, then Throne is the counterweight — a story about making new stories and coming to terms with the now.
At current count, Ken Liu's Dandelion Dynasty books clock in at north of 2,500 pages. They span continents and generations, involve gods and monsters, heroes and traitors, stretch from creation myth to the upending of the world. He has called them epics himself. He's been plain about trying to ret-con an East Asian foundational narrative that deconstructs Western tropes and builds something sparkling and new from the pieces. And he does that, no doubt. Liu's epic is Tolkien rebuilt from the bones up; a silkpunk Aeneid where tax policy and supply chains matter just as much (and are treated with as much drama) as battles or heroic journeys across the sea.
There's this saying — this repeated quote — that runs through Liu's entire series. It began in the mouth of Kuni Garu, the bandit-turned-emperor: a promise to always do the most surprising thing. In Throne, it finds a home with Princess Thera and Takval, who are constantly pushing each other to do the most interesting thing.
The Veiled Throne is not an easy book. Not a coddling one. It's not the most fun book of the trilogy to read. But with the way it finds its balance in the series, it might be Liu's most interesting.
And with its cliffhanger ending and late announcement that Throne would not, actually, be the promised final book in the series, it becomes the most surprising, too. Because as big as it has become, Liu's epic is not a complete one, either.
At least not yet.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Star Blazers. He's the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.