The Grace of Kings
by Ken Liu
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
A nominee for this year's Nebula, The Grace of Kings has received generally favorable reviews. My opinion is 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 in tone. I didn't know much about it beforehand, but a later search confirmed my suspicion it was based on Chinese legends, that of the Qin and Han dynasties of the 3rd Century BC. This is the first book in a sequence called the Dandelion Dynasty, with the second novel due out sometime later this year. I'm not sure I'll bother with it, unless it also gets some nominations.
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 Emperor Madipéré, whose intentions were to stop the incessant warring between the different states. He would have been more successful if he had not fallen prey to narcissism. His castle and 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. Different groups plot rebellion, the most successful of which are under the commands of Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu. Mata is 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, but when the time came he proved to be both intelligent, logical in tactics, and benevolent to his followers. He and Mata became close friends...for a time. Mata was a prowd 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 south, Kuni's band was able to invade the royal city and capture the emperor. This infuriated Mata, and he branded Kuni's action as a betrayal.
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, as well as 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, but actions that pitted one against the other for no other reason than selfishness. That had me shaking my head too many times.
For others who liked it more than me, this review might sound too harsh, but then again, a lot of others are more into fantasy than I am. I probably wouldn't have read this except for the many glowing reviews it got, as well as wanting to read as many Hugo eligible novels as possible, plus the fact I snagged the e-book at a greatly reduced price. It is better than a couple of others I've read over the past year or so, but not as good as others, and not as good as most of the science fiction over the same period of time. My suggestion is to check out some other reviews, compare them to other things those reviewers like (or don't like) and decide for yourself if it is likely to appeal to you.
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