Last time I talked about a Truly Terribly Book, but tearing things down isn’t generally my preferred MO. So this week, I thought I would talk about a Truly Marvelous Book. Marvelous is quite a word to live up to, but I just finished reading The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, and I did a lot of marveling, both during and after reading it.
The world Liu builds is dense and vibrant, breathtakingly so. It includes a rainbow of lands and cultures, alongside wonders both natural and mechanical. There are falcons who nest and drink at springs filled with lighter than air gas who can thus fly longer and farther than any other bird; there are mechanical whales powered by steam and painted for camouflage from airships. There’s much more. The very richness of the setting makes the book difficult to get into at first, but the payoff is well worth it. And the gorgeous world is only the beginning of what makes this book marvelous.
One thing that impressed me was that Grace of Kings manages to be both epic and, for lack of better word, human at the same time. The story focuses on both ordinary people and heroes – and blurs the lines between. Yes, there are great warriors, great intellects, powerful rulers, bloody battles and more. However, heroes are ordinary people, too, with ordinary desires and flaws and insecurities. And ordinary people prove themselves remarkable, doing great things and changing the flow of history.
Liu’s book subverts the usual trope(s) of the hero. While there is one character who seems to fit the archetype, the book repeatedly shows the less-than-heroic repercussions of a person who sees the world in black and white and whose greatest ability is for violence. And even this larger than life figure is only human in the end. Conversely, the other main “hero” of the book starts out as a drunken ne’er-do-well, who becomes a petty bureaucrat, who becomes a bandit… He repeatedly compares himself to a dandelion, a common weed. But the various parts of the dandelion have a surprising number of useful properties, and its seeds fly far and wide as long as there’s wind to carry them. His willingness to see the world in new ways and consequently to do things no one else will ultimately catapults him to greatness. However, he unquestionably commits problematic acts on the way there.
Which brings me to something else I really liked about Grace of Kings: ultimately, there are no pure “good guys” or “bad guys.” The major characters all have powerful virtues as well as powerful flaws. Some of them are easier to praise or condemn than others, but it’s never possible to do it completely. For example, the story starts with a promenade by the Evil Emperor, who is doing a victory lap after conquering most of the known world. He’s widely hated for abusive taxes, conscription, and harsh penalties for failures in either. Later in the book, though, it’s revealed that he’s also a visionary. He wanted to take every sword and spear in his new domain and melt them down to be made into statues of the gods; he wanted to promote the flow of commerce, culture, and ideas between different parts of his new empire. He succeeded in the latter. Obviously, ideals don’t excuse actions, but the point is that he isn’t just an Evil Emperor. He’s a powerful but fundamentally human person driven by desire and fear.
Unsurprisingly, the plot is as complex as the characters. Multiple threads of stories weave in and out of one another, reflecting and transforming each other. As a simple example, I can think of at least three or four variations of brothers (by blood or otherwise) who become estranged from one another. Each variation is different. The causes, consequences, and emotions shift in each, and each story rises, peaks, and concludes at different intervals in the book as a whole. However, there are similarities in each, and they subtly influence each other. Taken together, they seem like ocean waves rolling onto shore: none is the same as the one that came before it, but each is similar to and connected to the others.
Here, too, Liu subverts the usual tropes of epic fantasy. Ordinarily, the plot hinges on the defeat of some great evil, with lesser evils to be fought along the way. When the final foe is defeated, the story is more or less complete. In Grace of Kings, however, the story is as much about conflicts within and among the heroes (or “heroes”) as it is about the conflict between them and the Evil Empire. Arguably, it’s more about those other conflicts. Not only that, but the empire is actually defeated with a large chunk of the book to go. What happens after the heroes defeat the ultimate foe? Grace of Kings delivers the answer, and how.
All of this makes the book feel remarkably real. It’s perhaps a surprising thing to say about an epic fantasy, but Grace of Kings feels in some ways more real than many other stories I’ve encountered. There are events in the book that shake the foundation of the world, yet these great events are just as often driven by accidents and mistakes as they are by the deliberate actions of heroes leading the charge. Everyone is human. Over and over again, the book shows how a minor failing – or a simple virtue – in the right place at the right time can change the course of history. And Grace of Kings feels like history. History is not simple; it is made up of a dizzying number of stories woven together into one long tapestry. Some parts of it are obvious, others subtle. There are no neat endings. Like waves coming into shore, one story is always rising as another is subsiding.
If you like epic fantasy, if you like gorgeous world-building, if you like complex, believable characters and stories – and if you’re not looking for light reading – I highly recommend this truly marvelous book.
There was so much more I wanted to talk about in this post, but one can only include so much. I’d love to discuss more, in the comments or elsewhere, if anyone’s interested.