The Grace of Kings • 2015 • Epic Fantasy novel by Ken Liu

★★

The Grace of Kings (The Dandelion Dynasty, #1)

Set in the archipelago fantasy world called Dara, in a situation similar to the Chinese epoch 200 B.C. after the fall of the Chin dynasty and the rise of the Han dynasty, we follow the struggle for control of the known world by two main protagonists, never-do-well Kuni Garu and noble champion Mata Zyndu. It is a time of rebellion, war, of great changes, inventions, of social contention.

The two heroes represent opposite qualities, one orientating in the old ways, the other one is more progressive. Mata Zyndu wants to restore the world with several kingdoms as it used to be before the times of the emperor, whereas Kuni Garu wants to make people happier and have an interesting life. They become leaders of a rebellion against the old Empire, get together, become friends, but find out that their ideals don’t fit together.

It is the start of a series but works just fine as a stand-alone, it doesn’t end in a cliffhanger but has a nicely defined start and finish.

Analysis:

The author calls this kind of fantasy „Silkpunk“, similar to the Victorean era technology of Steampunk but with a East Asian flavour. It uses only tiny bits of magic but lots of deic interventions.

I loved the technological backgrounds with oared air ships, kites used for military signaling, or underwater vehicles, contrasting magical sea beasts or mind-reading books.

The novel starts in a very frustrating way with names, names, names for people, landscapes, sitting positions – and after that with even more names, feeling more like a history textbook or an atlas than a fantasy novel. I nearly put it away because I couldn’t bear it anymore.

There are huge loads of different characters, and I lost track of many of them. In the beginning, I didn’t know in which ones I should invest. Some characters, like the two main protagonists, felt wooden, leading to a predictable ending. Other characters were not that flat. I especially liked former tax collector Kindo Marana turning into a general; Liu seems to take a lot of interest in tax topics, wanting to make taxes interesting to the reader when he takes a look at military strategy through a tax point of view. Lots of characters where driven by vignette like interleavings which were woven so thickly around the main plot that sometimes I lost the main plot or didn’t recognize it as such.

Narration style is inconsistent and throws in many diverse elements. There are flashback character introductions, kennings and other kinds of poems, or there is a nice chapter consisting of letter exchanges which all read very well for its own. But in the given context, they felt like thrown in, contrasting huge descriptions of epic battles where tens of thousands people die, contrasting a kind of poem where gods banter mortals‘ fates. There are lots of side stories of secondary or tertiary characters driving the plot. It might be that you exactly like this diversity. Usually, I do as well, but it stretched my comfort zone too far, as it felt too random.

The editor called it „The Aeneid as a fantasy novel, it’s War and Peace as a fantasy novel.“ It is very different from Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, as there aren’t as many extreme twists and turns or sexual roughness. It also differs from Kay’s historical fantasy novels like Tigana, as it feels more like a textbook than a novelization. As a third work, I’d like to mention The Lord of the Rings, which is also driven by males and has a similar epic format.  If you like those, there is a good chance that you might like The Grace of Kings.

This is a beast of a book jumping into the fantasy novel arena, and I wasn’t able to tame it as well as I wanted to. It might turn out to be better on a re-read – which I don’t plan to do – and I probably won’t read the sequel coming out in Summer 2016.

Meta: isfdb. This Fantasy novel was published 2015 by Head of Zeus. It is the first entry in the Dandelion Dynasty series.

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