Review – The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Posted: February 18, 2016 in Fantasy
Tags: , ,

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Emperor Mapidere was the first to unite the island kingdoms of Dara under a single banner. But now the emperor is on his deathbed, his people are exhausted by his vast, conscriptive engineering projects and his counselors conspire only for their own gain. Even the gods themselves are restless. A wily, charismatic bandit, and the vengeance-sworn son of a deposed duke cross paths as they each lead their own rebellion against the emperor’s brutal regime. Together, they will journey to the heart of the Empire; witnessing the clash of armies, fleets of silk-draped airships, magical books and shapeshifting gods. Their unlikely friendship will drastically change the balance of power in Dara…but at what price?

The Grace of Kings is epic fantasy of the highest calibre. It’s full of political intrigue, rebellions and treachery, heroes, gods and war. That’s the shorthand version of a review. However, such a fantastic book deserves more consideration.

Ken Liu is a masterful world builder for one. The landscapes he creates, populated by a variety of societies and people is enthralling. It underpins the scope of his plot which, in sheer magnitude, is epic. Secondly, the feel of his storytelling is equally unique; striking me as a mix between Greek mythology and Japanese feudal history. Finally, it is the characters that sew this whole novel into such a wonderful accomplishment. Though what starts as a ensemble cast, slowly becomes a story of two men locked in a battle to achieve the same goal yet from opposite ends.

It is this idea that is so intriguing. The rebellion to dethrone the emperor at the heart of the book turns in on itself as all those who engineer it become caught in the desires and fetters of power. Hubris and greed overcome many until it is left to Kuni and Mata, street thug and deposed nobel respectively, to end the empire’s reign of oppression. But, their goals are achieved through very different means and for very different reasons.

This, in my opinion, is where the author shines. The two protagonists are the products of their experiences and, as a result, it is their perceptions of situations that then shape their actions. This may seem logical but it’s rare that an author stays so true to his characters. Kuni may be a street tough but only because he prefers to get drunk with his friends and refuses to get a job as a youth; a path that turns him towards the edges of society yet one that sees him become a champion of the people. Mata may be a nobel born to a line of great warriors but his actions betray a character weak in mental fortitude that sees him caught up in abstract ideas of nobility, honour and societal class.

It is these traits that go on to create the conflict between the two heroes of the rebellion. Both want an end to war and oppression yet Kuni does it to free the people while Mata seeks to impose his idea of order on the world. In the end both must use the same means: warfare. Again, Ken Liu shows his intelligence highlighting that power and leadership corrupts not just those at the forefront but also those who stand in support; the advisors and commanders who make decisions to protect that ‘power’ and muddy the water of perception further.

The Grace of Kings does political intrigue like few other fantasy books. The rebellion is a wonderful foil for studying ideas of power, heroism, perception and self-reflexion. Yet, whilst this is a fantastic book that clearly and cleverly considers the human condition it is also, just as importantly a brilliantly work of fantasy. There’s plenty of huge, exciting battles and sieges, wondrous creatures and strange landscapes, interfering gods and subtle magics. It’s a true epic and Ken Liu is a talented writer with much to say.

Review copy
Published by Head of Zeus

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