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I’ve been an unabashed fan of Ken Liu’s stories right from the start, so I looked forward to having a chance to read his first novel, The Grace of Kings with considerable eagerness. Unless you’ve been in a coma for the past 6 months, you’ve undoubtedly already seen some of the hype and effusive praise about this book. Having finally found time to read it, mostly during and on the way to and from a recent vacation in China, I can tell you that it lives up to the hype—except when it doesn’t. In the rest of this review, I’ll strive to capture the essence of the novel minus some key details that many would classify as spoilers. Thus, in some cases, names and detailed examples have been removed that might otherwise seem appropriate to include.

As an admitted Sinophile, I initially approached the book without reading the advance reviews because I wanted to compare it, unbiased, to other novels influenced heavily by Chinese history (specifically, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven. But after getting a few pages into the story, I decided that would be an inappropriate strategy. Both are worthy books, each excellent in different ways, and although they’re spiritual kin to Grace, they’re very different things. Unlike Robinson’s and Kay’s stories, Grace isn’t an alternate history, though it’s heavily influenced by various periods of China’s turbulent history. Unlike those stories, it isn’t set in a place that resembles historical China. Instead, it has more of what I’d call a Chinese “flavor”; without being explicitly Chinese in setting or characters, it relies heavily on the cycle of the birth and fall of dynasties that has occurred repeatedly throughout Chinese history, and in so doing, creates something fresh and new.

There’s a cast that rivals that in Game of Thrones (or Song of Ice and Fire, if you prefer), a work that will inevitably be cited in comparison; both stories center on a struggle for temporal power and the nasty consequences thereof. As in George Martin’s work, every imaginable combination of good and bad things will happen to good and bad people. As in Martin, the body count is high, and characters who initially seem important and fascinating often have short lives—sometimes tragically, sometimes not so much.

As in the best tragedies, there’s always some humor to get us through the dark times. Liu’s gentle sense of humor persists amidst these frequent tragedies, with some delightfully self-referential touches, such as one major character eliminating the profession of lawyer (Liu himself is a lawyer), much to the delight of the populace. There are also two recurring characters, brothers straight out of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. There are many other cultural and genre references the alert reader will spot and enjoy. Occasionally, however, I felt that Liu’s sense of humor escaped his control. For example, he introduces a technology based on the use of large and powerful lodestones (natural magnets) that is being used as a primitive metal detactor to guard kings against assassins equipped with iron blades; however, there are so many ways to assassinate someone using non-metallic weapons (including one method that is used—twice—in the novel) that such devices would seem useless even to the most naïve. Thus, I have to see this technology as nothing more than a parody of the inefficacy of the “TSA security theater” that plays out in airports these days. It’s funny and to the point, but it felt somehow out of place in a novel that presents an unending series of human tragedies. I’m not sure why this example stood out compared with (say) the lawyer example, which seemed to evolve more organically from the plot; possibly this was the result of airport fatigue caused by a seemingly unending series of flights during my Chinese vacation, and the resulting loss of an ability to laugh off the security theatre.

Liu’s more common mode (in the subset of his stories that I’ve read thus far) is as a writer who is keenly aware of the emotions and suffering of his characters, and given the body count in Grace, I was expecting more of the same. Fortunately, Liu was wise enough to know that hundreds of pages of that intensity would be unbearable. Thus, one big difference between this novel and the stories Liu is famous for is a sometimes surprising distance from the emotions and suffering of most characters. (That’s not to say there aren’t poignant moments; as noted above, Liu introduces us to characters we come to like within the space of a few short pages—and who are then wiped from the stage through naivete, heroism, or just random bad luck. What there are instead are long-term character studies for those characters who do make it through the whole book.)

The events in Grace are driven primarily by two viewpoint characters (Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu) who dominate the stage, despite recurring important roles by the supporting cast. Kuni is a delightful character, a charming rogue who is probably closer to Robin Hood than to most other familiar Western literary characters. He’s deeply humane, and even when driven into the profession of banditry, he does his best to minimize collateral damage by insisting that none of his victims be hurt in any way. He thinks things through, mostly, and succeeds as often by his own genius as by knowing when to trust the advice of his friends and advisors. However, this created a serious inconsistency late in the book, when he is persuaded to let defeated troops loot their own captured city but without killing anyone both to reward them for switching their loyalties to him and to drive a wedge between them and the populace so that they would have no support for a potential mutiny against their new ruler. However, he neglects to insist that neither should the looters harm any of the populace; although one can easily rationalize this as the decision of a man driven past his ability to cope with the unremitting horror of warfare, by needing to set an unequivocally nasty example, or by emotional exhaustion, I wasn’t persuaded. It seemed too fundamental a violation of Kuni’s essential nature to be credible.

Mata is a Conan the Barbarian figure, and as such, didn’t really work for me. He often struck me as little more than a parody of the “mighty barbarian thud and blunder” cliché, but I suspect that most of those who criticize Robert Howard’s Conan stories because of this meme probably haven’t read the original stories. In Howard’s tales, Conan evolved into a thoughtful character who lived by his wits as much as by his mighty barbarian muscles. I don’t know whether Liu has read the Conan stories, and thus, make no accusations here. Nonetheless, given Liu’s skill as a writer, I have to assume that carving Mata with a literary hammer and chisel rather than limning him with the fine brush used to portray other characters was a deliberate choice intended to provide the strongest possible contrast with Kuni. In particular, Mata is shackled by a world-view narrowed by his particular sense of historical injustice, combined with a warrior’s honour, and tends to thinks with his testicles rather than his mind. This leads to perhaps the greatest of the tragedies around which the book orbits.

To be clear, Mata is not unrealistic; there are plenty of historical examples of similar fools with big muscles (literally or otherwise) and limited willingness to consider other viewpoints, trying to shape the world in their own ill-informed and ill-considered image. Indeed, I’ve met many such frustrating individuals (albeit not figures who will appear in the history books) in my own life. It’s just frustrating from an esthetic perspective; a more three-dimensional or at least more thoughtful character would have interested me more. I suppose one of the redeeming characteristics of Mata’s portrayal is as a reminder to maintain judicious skepticism about one’s own logic; despite knowing better, I still make frequent and sometimes serious errors as a result of trusting my own judgment too much. Mata’s lack of nuance struck me as particularly unfortunate given that most other characters are painted on a broader palette of shades of gray, neither entirely good nor entirely evil.

Two diversity-related flaws bothered me early in the book. First, although the nations of the story world are clearly diverse (with clear Asian, Black, and White “races”), these distinctions often seemed to be more set dressing than truly a reflection of cultural differences. As a result, they did not seem to shape the plot in ways that would have been interesting to see. There is also at least one gay male character, who is accepted without question by his friends, and a Loki-like bisexual god, but these are presented as accepted facts rather than as anything problematic. Although that’s a nice thought, it seems implausible given the other human flaws that are in abundant display throughout the book and possibly trivializes the struggles such people would face in “real life”.

Second, as I was taking notes to draft this review, I realized that halfway through the book there had been no significant strong female characters. Supporting characters, yes, but not primary characters. To some extent, this is an inevitable consequence of the roles assigned to women in any culture in which physical strength determines success more often than brains and wisdom. Liu acknowledges this problem explicitly in a short but memorable description of one female character who accepts this lesson but then finds herself outmanipulated by a more experienced male schemer, leading to her destruction. The situation changes about three-quarters of the way into this first volume, when we are finally introduced to a female character every bit as wily as the men surrounding her. (Simultaneously, a couple other female characters blossom as their environment changes enough to make this growth possible.) As an overall depiction of the situation, this seemed hard to credit given how successfully Kuni thrives entirely because of his cleverness; he could not have survived past the first few chapters based on physical skills alone. So where are the successful women who follow a similar pattern, particularly within the Imperial court? Nonetheless, when women begin to make their ideas felt late in the book, it’s like the spring ice breakup in a frozen river: a rigid, unyielding condition is irreversibly disrupted, leading to a sudden onrush of progress (including, amusingly, the nearly overnight replacement of a traditional feudal army with what is essentially a modern fighting force that has benefited from Liu’s study of centuries of modern military scholarship).

One strategy Liu has followed in this book is to emulate the Asian game Go, in which playing pieces positioned seemingly at random early in the game come to have crucial strategic importance later. He makes this approach explicit when he describes one character’s learning curve with this universe’s equivalent of Go. As a result, many bits and pieces of plot or character established early in the novel, seemingly without overt purpose, gradually become relevant later in the story. (For example, the central tragedy of the book, the destruction of the relationship between two characters, evolves on this basis.) Conversely, the ripple effects of such changes can eventually lead to a better society. Behind what appears on the surface to be a conventional military-historical fantasy story, Liu is playing with the concept of Kuni’s efforts to evolve a utopian society and the many ways such efforts can fail due to human failings. Kuni sometimes struck me as too modern, with his viewpoint and beliefs influenced too strongly by modern ethical sensibilities, but I suppose that such forward-looking characters have existed throughout history. I look forward to seeing how this approach plays out in the final two volumes of this proposed trilogy.

As noted above, I found Grace different from Liu’s short stories in the level of emotional intensity, which sometimes borders on painful. Whereas his intense character studies in his short stories often turn up the intensity to 11 (insert gratuitous Spinal Tap reference), things here seem more muted. When 40 thousand troops die in a single battle, this merits a mention, but we are not made to feel any of the pain this would evoke; we are told of such consequences, but this is an example where “show, don’t tell” would have worked better. Specifically, I would have preferred a handful of vignettes to show the consequences of these actions for the soldiers involved in the battle and their subsequent ripple effects for the families and friends of the slain, the maimed, and the emotionally destroyed. Stalin is said to have proclaimed that “a single death is a tragedy[, whereas] a million deaths is a statistic”. It’s certainly true that the human mind cannot grasp the scope of such tragedies, but Liu’s short stories show his ability to at least help us experience intense empathy for those who would otherwise become such “statistics”, and I would have preferred to see some of that gift exercised here.

Mea culpa: In my first novel, Chords, I also chose not to portray the physical and emotional consequences of warfare for the soldiers, their families, and other civilians. That was a deliberate choice because I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the two POV characters (specifically through first-person POV), who would not think of such things based on their personalities and their cultural conditioning. I introduced a key supporting character to clue in the reader to realize that both protagonists are therefore unreliable narrators, but the result was too subtle and therefore failed to make the point clearly. I have plans to revise the story by intercalating chapters from the POV of that key supporting character to explicitly show the blindness of the two male leads to any stories other than their own. However, since Grace is told from a third-person POV, this kind of omission seems less appropriate.

I’m not sufficiently familiar with Chinese deities to draw any thematic connections. Instead, I’ll note that the gods of Grace are every bit as petty and willfully blind as the humans they are nominally superior to. They behave every bit as badly as the traditional Greek gods and goddesses; indeed, as in Greek mythology, the gods are in many ways exaggerated caricatures of the humans they nominally created and rule. As a result, they appear to be primary drivers of the plot. Yet Liu does not allow such a simplistic conclusion to stand; it is clear that, ill-behaved gods notwithstanding, we humans remain fundamentally responsible for our own moral choices. We can’t use our gods as excuses for poor behavior. (That being said, it is also clear that the principle of "as above, so below" is being followed to some extent. A case could be made that some of Mata's blundering about results from the influence of the war god who is clearly his template.)

Liu has a ton of fun playing with medieval-ish technologies, often clearly steampunk-influenced. (This is perhaps the origin of the label “silkpunk” that has been applied to Grace.) A particularly telling example is the use of helium-powered dirigibles that tilt the balance of power in favor of the empire. Unfortunately, as in the abovementioned example of the metal detector, they often didn’t work as well as they should have, in part because Liu did not follow the implications of technology far enough. (Disclaimer: I was trained as a scientist, and I tend to apply this rigor in situations where it might not be appropriate. Thus, ymmv in terms of whether you buy the technological gimmickry in Grace. It is, after all, a fantasy more than a science fiction novel.) The airships are a fun gimmick and an important plot driver, but their central conceit (that they essentially made naval power obsolete by allowing bombing of ships with the culture’s equivalent to Greek fire) simply doesn’t work. Hitting even a stationary target from any significant altitude requires the equivalent of a bombsight to permit anything resembling accuracy; bombsights are not a trivial invention, and require a sophisticated grasp of mathematics and moderately sophisticated technology to produce. For a moving target such as a warship that is frantically maneuvering to get out from under the rain of fire, it simply won’t be possible to reliably hit the target without one. There’s an unavoidable tradeoff: to remain safe against deck-mounted weaponry such as a heavy ballista, you need to be very high, and the time required for “bombs” to fall from such great heights will allow even a fairly clumsy ship ample time to get out of the way. However, dropping low enough to give the ship no maneuvering time also places you within range of antiaircraft fire; that’s doubly true in a context where the existence of airships would powerfully drive the development of effective countermeasures, as indeed happens late in the book. Liu explores some of the inevitable evolution of military countermeasures in response to such game-changing technologies, but surely that would also have occurred earlier in this world's history?

A second example, the invention of what are effectively primitive submarines, is fun and clever, but it doesn’t persuade. An examination of the early submarines created by our real-world heavily scientific, technological, and industrial culture reveals how long it took to produce anything that would be potentially effective in a military context. Given the non-scientific, non-technological, non-industrial culture of Liu’s story world, such inventions simply aren’t plausible. I can see such technologies evolving in future books as a stable and forward-looking culture evolves to support such engineering explorations, but in this first volume, they appear premature and out of context.

These criticisms aside, there’s a ton of wisdom, both implicit and explicit, in Grace, including repeated lessons about the unreliability of human moral character and of alliances founded on convenience rather than mutual need, the failure of genius (military or other) to be passed down through the generations (*cough cough*Vannevar Bush*cough cough*), the paradoxical perils of listening to advisors who have their own agenda and of not listening to advisors who really do have a profound and unselfish view of the situation, how a man’s wife doesn’t buy into the myths he and others have created for him, how deeds always speak louder than words (but are rarely interpreted as you intended), and the perils of speaking truth to power—yet the urgent need to do so despite the costs. Yet somehow, despite these problems, people muddle through and life goes on, often getting better for everyone, and that hopeful message is perhaps one of the subtler messages of Grace.

As in his short stories, Liu’s writing is simple, straightforward, sometimes lyrical, and often profound. The characters and story arc are good enough that despite having a free review copy of the ebook, I’m still going to buy a physical copy for the home library and will look forward to the following installments in the series.


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