There’s a famous quote from George Santayana that says, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s often used to emphasize the importance of cultural history. If you don’t know where you come from, how can you know where you’re going? It’s a powerful, if exceedingly trite, message. But, it rings true.
Unfortunately, the past also possesses deep nostalgia, which is too often seen through rose colored glasses. How often have we held up some period in history as the ideal? And how often do we see this reflected in fiction? It’s interesting then when something like The Grace of Kings comes along, in which Ken Liu attempts to reflect on history, to almost wallow in it, while at the same time confronting all of its baggage and remembering it not as it was, but as he would like it to be.
Although that’s rather getting ahead of things a bit.
The Grace of Kings begins with all the pomp and circumstance that an epic fantasy novel ought. The Emperor marches into conquered territory to remind his subjects of his power. All is not well in the kingdom though. A man, on mechanized wings, attempts an assassination, dropping fire from the sky. He fails, but an indolent adolescent sees it all. Kuni Garu, a middling son of a middling family with about as much ambition as a rock, is fascinated by what he’s seen. It will change his life forever, although he hardly knows it.
Across the empire, another young man named Mata Zyndu is Kuni’s opposite in every way. The son of a deposed duke, he has been raised his entire life to retake his rightful place at the head of an army. With only the Emperor to blame for his family’s fall, Mata is ambition personified. Where Kuni is the common dandelion, Mata is the noble chrysanthemum, and rebellion resides in both their hearts.
Leaping across months and years from one page to the next, Liu paints a lush sweeping narrative of Dara, his invented simulacrum of Imperial China, and the people who inhabit it. Although the commentary has a lot to do with the real world’s cultural touchstones, The Grace of Kings is a fantasy, with petty meddling gods, odd mechanized inventions, and a sense that mystical powers lurk around the corner. It is nothing if not epic.
And a unique epic it is, not only for the influences it displays, but for the structure Liu employs. Constructed more like an epic poem than an epic fantasy, the underpinnings of The Grace of Kings hearken back to Chinese folklore. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the obvious comparison, but Western readers will recognize hints of the Homeric poems as well. Where epic fantasies are traditionally based around tight third person points of view, Liu deploys a far more adaptable voice, zooming in and out of omniscient to convey the story he needs to tell. Of course, like many cultural historical narratives, Liu seems occasionally more interested in the thematic through-line than multidimensional characters. This can leave the reader feeling apathetic about many of the characters, who seem to fit an archetype deployed for storytelling purposes rather than living, breathing people.
In that way, it is quite a huge departure from the “modern” epic fantasy. From George R.R. Martin, to Robin Hobb, to Peter V. Brett, to Kameron Hurley, the epic fantasy is built on beloved characters the reader imprints on and never wants to let go. The Grace of Kings isn’t that kind of novel. Not that its characters aren’t interesting, because they certainly are, but they are written in a style that demands intellectual curiosity as opposed to emotional attachment.
Putting the character issue aside, the plot, and theme, work together beautifully. The Grace of Kings is a story of rebellion. Mata rebels to restore the status quo, while Kuni does it because, otherwise, he’s irrelevant. Think about that for a minute in the context of an entire novel built around the historical epic. The very structure of the project demands a dogmatic attachment to the foundational narrative. It is meant, by design, to represent all that is good and right within a culture’s history. Liu doesn’t shy from the device either. He embraces the structures and outmoded ways of thought. He exposes them through Mata’s wrongheaded dedication to tradition, then discards them with Kuni’s willingness to change. This is demonstrated most noticeably in the novel’s treatment of women, which begins with the premise, as many epic fantasies do, of powerlessness. How Liu addresses this throughout the novel challenges the assumptions that have been made about historical eras, and finds ways to subvert them.
Reconciling all of these things will be a challenge for many readers, who won’t find the comfortable second skin feeling that many epic fantasies excel in providing. This is not Brent Weeks. It is, however, a standout achievement for its bold desire to be different. Much in the way Joe Abercrombie and George R.R. Martin upset the apple cart of epic fantasy by inverting tropes and expectations, Liu is changing the way epic fantasy is structured. It’s daring and risky and all together welcome in a field that too often feels like an echo chamber of predictable narratives.
In the end, The Grace of Kings is moving forward. It’s about recognizing the past doesn’t hold the answers, and all the things we have been told are true and right and just may not be at all. He is reimagining an entire cultural narrative and in so doing interrogating the underpinnings of what is idyllic. He is using nostalgia to reveal modernity. More to the point, it feels like Ken Liu is remembering the future. And that’s something worth getting behind.
The Grace of Kings is available now from Saga Press.
Read an excerpt from the novel here on Tor.com, and listen to Ken Liu and Saga Press editor Joe Monti on both the Rocket Talk and Coode Street podcasts!
Justin Landon used to run Staffer’s Book Review. Now he kinda blogs at justlandon.com. Find him on Twitter for meanderings on science fiction and fantasy, and to argue with him about whatever you just read.