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The Dandelion Dynasty
by Ken Liu

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted October 12, 2021
Edits & Addenda on October 31 & November 22

The Grace of Kings / The Wall of Storms / The Veiled Throne / Speaking Bones (coming June 2022)

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I originally reviewed The Grace of Kings more than five years ago, when it was a Nebula finalist. I voted for the Hugos that year and wanted to sample as many eligible books as possible. It didn't win the Nebula, was not a Hugo finalist, but did win a Locus for best first novel, and was a finalist for a Seiun in Japanese translation, and for the Crawford Award, which is presented for best first fantasy book by the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts. At that time I said I might not follow up with the sequel. While I have changed my mind, it's too soon to tell if I will celebrate or regret that decision. I bought the e-book when it was on sale, and the same applies to the second title, but didn't decide to read it until the third book was offered as an ARC from Net Galley. Each subsequent book is quite a bit longer than the previous one, and just this morning I learned there will be a fourth title out next year, whereas I thought it was going to be just a trilogy. I can't even be sure that will be the conclusion. I created this new page using the collective title for the series, the Dandelion Dynasty, and will later delete the other page. Most of the next few paragraphs are from my original review, with just minor edits after re-reading.

The first book received generally favorable reviews, but my opinion is still mixed. There are some very good sequences, with lyrical prose and character drama with emotional impact, but also too much repetition of action and an inconsistency of tone. I didn't know much about it beforehand, but a later search confirmed my suspicion it might be based on Chinese legends (EDIT: I cannot find the page I read before that identified a specific era, so that info might have been incorrect). A generation or so before the main action, the nation states of Dara, a grouping of islands with varying ethnic populations, are brought together under the rule of King Réon of Xana, who chooses the royal name of Emperor Madipéré. Xana was one of the smallest nation states, so it's puzzling how they conquered all the others, but I suppose, like the Romans, they conscripted defeated troops, incorporating them into their army as they advanced on the other kingdoms. That would make sense because the various regions had been warring against each other for many years. Madipéré's intention was to stop the incessant conflicts between the different states. He would have been more successful if he had not fallen prey to narcissism. His castle and city (Pan, the Immaculate City) had to be the grandest creations anyone had ever seen, and that included a giant mausoleum he ordered to be built for his final resting place. He imposed heavy taxation and used conscript labor for these projects, even punishing workers' families for any accidents or deaths.

The author drew a map of the Dara Islands, later reproduced by an artist for publication. If the scale is correct, Big Island is not that big, smaller than Spain or France, but it is home to six of the seven nation states, with several of them claiming adjacent islands. I am sure their borders had shifted multiple times over the years, and did so during and after the major battles in this book. Different groups plot rebellion against Madipéré, the most successful of which are under the commands of Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu. Mata was of noble birth, but his family's fortune and position were lost in the wars, while Kuni is a commoner, a ne'er-do-well, gambler, sometimes thief, referred to by most as a gangster. Yet there is something within Kuni that took a long time to gestate, and when the time came he proved to be intelligent, logical in tactics, and benevolent to his followers. He and Mata became close friends...for a time. Mata was a proud warrior, marshall of his nation's armies, who expected to be the ruler following a successful rebellion. While he was engaged against imperial forces in the east, Kuni's band was able to invade the royal city and capture the emperor, now Madipéré's young son Erishi. This infuriated Mata, and he branded Kuni's action as a betrayal. Kuni was gracious in withdrawing from Pan, and was "rewarded" the position of King of Dasu, the smallest of the original Xana island group, far to the north of Big Island, but Mata held Kuni's wife and family hostage in their native state of Cocru in the south.

The repetition of action mentioned previously is mostly about the different battles, or the preparation for them, as well as the many journeys to different places on Big Island or to other islands nearby. For maybe the first third of the story I was thinking it wasn't really a fantasy, just a myth of an ancient land, with a few steampunk variations thrown in. The ubiquitous airship is on display, and later there were other anachronistic inventions and weapons, such as submarines and a magnetic scanning system that detected metal weapons. I thought maybe the depiction of 'deities' was more like the chorus of a Greek tragedy, but then they started interacting with the mortals, or so it seemed. Other fantastical elements were also introduced, including various forms of magic. They weren't necessary, and in many cases were just a convenient plot device. However, the most frustrating things were actions that seemed to contradict previously established character traits. Was it necessary for everyone to betray someone else throughout the book? I'm not talking about making mistakes that led to someone's death or defeat, but conscious actions that pitted one against the other for no reason other than selfishness, or a maneuvering for a better position. That had me shaking my head too many times.

On second thought, that may be exactly the type of thing that did happen in the historical events the book is supposedly mirroring. I won't say who prevails in the end, because of course this isn't the end, but anyone who chooses to read this should be able to guess some things early on, based on the series title. I gather the following books will cover several generations, so there's no telling who will be the ultimate victor. I am hoping it is the general populace, who had long been manipulated by unscrupulous kings and generals, and betrayed on multiple occasions. Again, interesting characters, poignant dialogue, moving descriptions of spiritual and moral thought…but also brutality, betrayal, revenge, and petty selfishness. Even my favorite characters were guilty of most of those at various times, so all victories were hollow and disappointing. We'll see how it goes in the second book, which is more than 200 pages longer, so it will be a while before I can update this page.

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Posted October 31, 2021
The Wall of Storms, whose sole award recognition was as finalist for a Locus, is much longer than the first book. It is not uncommon for fantasy and science fiction series to span more than a trilogy. There will be at least four books in the Dandelion Dynasty, but it could have been much more than that. It might have been better to have made this two separate books, but if all the scenarios had been given equal time it could have been as many as four. A phrase I've frequently used, although I can't recall if I came up with it on my own or read it somewhere else: "Every war that has ever been fought has sown the seeds for the next one." Dara was settled by refugees from Ano, who conquered the indigenous tribes. I'm not sure if that was what became known as the Diaspora Wars, or if that came later. The constant warring between the different states of Dara propelled King Réon (later Emperor Madipéré) into his "unification" war, which in turn led to the rebellions against him. Now the new emperor, who chose the royal name of Ragin, has to contend with several disgruntled former nation state leaders who had sided with a rival rebel leader, who is now deceased. That mini rebellion starts about a fourth of the way in, capping off the first half the novel, with several other scenarios going on in the background, some of them flashbacks to at least twenty years prior.

One of the flashbacks is about an expedition promoted by Emperor Madipéré to discover the fabled lands to the north, which were thought to be the home of immortals. Another flashback concerns a poor fisherman's daughter on Dasu, whose father is among those who are sent to search for the lost ships of that expedition. Mimi, later given the name Zomi by her mentor, grows up to win a position in Ragin's court after scoring the highest in the Imperial Examinations. Her mentor, the Haan scholar Luan Zya, was one of my favorite characters from the first book, even though he was also responsible for one of the many betrayals during the rebellion. At least he felt remorse for that, and rejected every invitation to serve the emperor in an official capacity. When Zomi has to present her thesis to the emperor each point is followed by a flashback to one of the lessons she learned from Luan, which took place in many different locations as they traveled around Dara in an airship. After Zomi wins her position at court, Luan chooses to travel north to see if he can discover the fate of Madipéré's lost fleet. He learns much more that he bargained for, the story of which is recounted in yet another flashback, which comes after that fleet returns to Dara under the command of a heretofore unknown tribe, the Lyucu.

The second half of the book is about the war between Dara and the Lyucu, which "ends" in a stalemate. Dara considered the Lyucu to be barbarians, but the feeling was mutual. Each had their traditions and customs that had been shaped by the lands they inhabited. Dara had engineers to design ever more complicated weapons systems, while the Lyucu had mastered the Dara ships more easily than might have been expected. They also learned much from their Dara captives, including the types of military tactics to expect, and how to maneuver airships. They also had a weapon unknown to Dara, which I won't reveal here. During every battle it seemed Dara had come up with a sure-fire way to defeat the Lyucu, only to be thwarted by their opponent's ingenuity and ability to counter each new weapon. The first book was mainly about the rebellion against Madipéré, and the various rivalries between rebel leaders, each of whom were guilty of betrayal. This book started out the way I was hoping, with the new emperor struggling with how to govern rather than how to fight. Unfortunately, he wasn't given the opportunity to fully shape Dara the way he had hoped. There were more betrayals; by his former rivals, from within his court, even from within his own family.

If you like complicated narratives with a huge cast of characters, I can recommend this. As with the first book, there are lyrical passages of the people's love for the land, individuals love for each other, as well as moral and ethical principles, either recounted from the Ano classics, or newly established by scholars of the day. There are also parts that should either have been cut, or edited, mainly dealing with the processes of invention for several of the weapons. Short statements about the scientific principles utilized would have sufficed. Instead those sections read like a textbook, or a lecture at the Imperial Academy. Zomi is my favorite character here, and I would have liked a full novel about her struggles, her education under Luan Zya, and her rise to a position co-equal to Dara's Prime Minister. Not to mention her love interest. Other readers will be drawn to different characters, but it is certain that many will be disappointed when their favorite doesn't make it to the end of the book. Some fall in battle, some are tortured and die from injuries, others sacrifice themselves for the good of everyone else. I expect a lot more of that in the third book, which is longer still. Will my favorite still be standing at the end? Considering the title for the series, I have to assume at least one of the current Dara royalty, or one of their descendants, will still be around. I still have no doubt there will be many more heartaches ahead.

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Posted November 22, 2021
I got an advance e-book of The Veiled Throne from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. It will be published in two weeks, December 7. There are a lot of good things to recommend it, but as with the previous book, it could have used tighter editing, or been broken up into multiple books. It is over 1000 pages. The title references one thing specifically, but in my mind it could be applied to several other scenarios. There are more flashbacks here, and multiple points of view from both old and new characters, and actions taking place in multiple locations. Something I didn't mention about the previous book; the Lyucu came from a land to the north, either another continent, or another large island. That land was the home of two different ethnic groups, the Lyucu in the area known as Ukyu, and the Agon in Gondé. Just as the different groups in Dara had warred over the years, so did the Lyucu and Agon. At one time Agon ruled the land, with the Lyucu as their slaves, then those roles reversed. The Wall of Storms was a weather pattern which consisted of cyclones and waterspouts which separated Ukyu-Gondé and Dara. Occasionally, a gap appeared in the wall which allowed ships to pass. That happened for Emperor Madipéré's "lost" fleet, and also for Luan Zya when he searched for them. Luan was able to calculate when those gaps would occur, but he kept his research hidden by codes. The Lyucu guessed correctly on one of those times, which allowed them to invade Dara.

Dara's Emperor Ragin had four children, the two oldest with Empress Jia. Timu was his mother's pick to be Ragin's successor, but Ragin preferred his daughter Therá. He made that announcement at the climax of the Battle of Zathin Gulf, which saw the end of his life, and the beginning of the stalemate between Dara and the Lyucu. Other events caused the reign of Therá, who took the name Empress Üna, to be short-lived. She instead chose to align with Takval, an Agon prince, who had come to Dara in the belly of a whale, ŕ la Jonah. Thus the realization that whales and other fish could travel under the Wall of Storms. Therá mounts an expedition to either go through the Wall of Storms, or if necessary underneath it. Dara adapts several naval vessels to act similar to the previously used mechanical cruebens, submarines. She wants to help the Agon organize to throw off the yoke of the Lyucu, to prevent them sending any reinforcments to Dara. Something else I didn't mention about the second book; Timu had been captured by the Lyucu, seduced by the daughter of the original Lyucu leader, later becoming Tanvanaki's consort and declared to be Emperor Thaké of Ukyu-taasa. "Taasa" means something like next, or secondary. A Lyucu leader is known as a Pékyu, with their son or daughter a pékyu-tassa. The Lyucu occupy what Dara knows as the Xana Islands, but have renamed them Ukyu-taasa. We follow the actions of Tanvanaki and Timu, as well as her younger brother back in Ukyu-Gondé, and Therá's ordeal among the Agon. Add to that, back in Pan, the actions of Empress Jia, now regent for Emperor Manadétu, formerly Prince Phyro, son of Ragin's Consort Risana. The Imperial family is complete with Princess Fara, daughter of Consort Fina, who died in childbirth.

Timu was the most scholarly of the royal family, but not suited for the throne, which his father correctly surmised. Therá might have made a good Empress, but she demured to her younger brother Phyro, who was more suited to military action. Empress Jia tried to hold him in check, preferring to use her regency to maintain peace and prosperity in Dara. She had negotiated a ten year truce with the Lyucu, but did not use that time to rebuild Dara's armies, which distressed Phyro. Since he could not rule as Emperor until Jia felt he was fit to do so, the actions he has been taking could be construed as treason. When Ragin was Emperor, he always appeared at court wearing a veil so that his councilers could not read his facial reactions to their proposals. Phyro, even though technically Emperor, rarely appeared in court, so the entire throne was veiled to hide his absence, even though everyone knew no one was behind that veil. In another sense, Timu could be said to be behind a veil, since he is just a figurehead for the other Dara citizens struggling under Lyucu rule. In turn, Therá is out of her element in Gondé, veiled by her arrogance of superiority. Another character is veiled from his past, but I won't say any more about that.

Aside from the flashbacks, the book covers about eight or nine years, but large parts of those years are skipped over. Many chapters have a countdown of when the next opening in the Wall of Storms is expected, or alternately the deadline for the Pékyu-taasa in Ukyu-Gondé to launch his ships, considering it will take them almost a year to reach the Wall. More time was spent on certain things than I felt was necessary, and less on scenarios that interested me more, especially what Phyro is doing to prepare a force to battle the Lyucu. There were times I almost stopped reading. One scenario did introduce some new and interesting characters, and set up future events, but all of that could have been compressed into fewer pages. It involves the character I mentioned above that was unaware of some things in his past. He meets new people in Dara, including Princess Fara (in disguise). But did we need 300 some odd pages about a competition between two restaurants? That was comprised of three parts; cooking, service, and entertainment. There were occasional short chapters of other events interspersed, but I desperately wanted more of them and less concerning the restaurants. Yet another reason I was constantly scratching my head, wondering why Liu felt it was necessary to extend those scenes as much as he did. The series has spanned over 2500 pages so far, with the fourth book to add over 900 more. Again, lots of interesting events and people, but also a lot of padding. I hope the conclusion is worth the effort.

 

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Author
Ken Liu

Published
2015-2021

Awards
Detailed in review

Purchase Links:
Amazon
Grace of Kings
Wall of Storms
Veiled Throne
Speaking Bones

Bookshop
Grace of Kings
Wall of Storms
Veiled Throne
Speaking Bones

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