The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Head of Zeus, 2015, 637 p, including iii p Contents, a i p Note on Pronunciation, iii p List of Characters, ii p of map, i p Glossary, i p Notes and i p Acknowlegements.

 The Grace of Kings cover

Well. Here we are again in Fantasy Land. A 623 page blockbuster complete with contents page(s), a list of characters, a glossary – which nevertheless doesn’t contain all the invented words employed – even a note on pronunciation no less. Liu is certainly taking himself seriously. And there’s a map. Of course there’s a map. (A dingy map, though, in shades of grey.)

But what’s the story like, I hear you ask?

Well, it starts with an attempt on the life of the Emperor Mapidéré, who had united the warring island kingdoms of Dara by conquest, and whose impositions on the populace thereafter – taxation, impressment of labour for grandiose projects etc – has led to resentment, especially among the representatives of the old order. The attempt is foiled by the quick thinking of the Captain of the Imperial Guard but the perpetrator (who was flying strapped into a kind of kite) escapes. Despite intensive searches the Emperor’s followers never find him. He does turn up again in some later chapters but only as a relatively minor influence on the plot.

We mainly follow Mata Zyndu, scion of one of the deposed ruling families and a formidable swordsman, and former chancer and bandit Kuni Garu as they combine forces to depose the Emperor (who on his death was replaced as figurehead by his son Erishi,) and their inevitable falling out. Almost half of the book is the working out of their conflict as the revolution eats itself. Mata is represented as a military man wedded to strength and order while Kuni is more thoughtful of the position of the ordinary people and their travails but still has to do things that lead to suffering. At times there are interpolations from the seven gods of Dara, sworn not to interfere in the affairs of mortals but who cannot resist meddling at the margins.

Liu makes some obeisance to strong capable women in the shape of Kuni’s wife, Jia, and Gin Mazoti, an orphan who reveals military talents and is made by Kuni head of his army, but, as is usual with the genre this is mostly a male enterprise. One of the more interesting aspects of the novel is the possession by Gya of a book that writes itself but this is largely wasted.

As to the writing, there is extensive information dumping, far too much is told, not shown, and the scenes where characters are perhaps meant to become more rounded to the reader tend to the sketchy. This is not helped by the habit of the gods in this tale to take on human appearance and interact with the mortals, usually with no intimation of their true nature to the reader till the scene is ending. Above all, there is the relentless catalogue of killing. There must be better ways to order human affairs even if the setting is all-but default mediæval.

Judging by the various blurbs, Liu’s inspiration for the setting (arising from his Chinese background) has been widely welcomed as a fresh angle on the Fantasy genre but to anyone who has read Asian literature in translation things seem utterly unremarkable – indeed familiar.

Nevertheless the narrative has its moments. Luan Gya says to Kuni, “The grace of kings is not the same as the morals governing individuals,” and Kuni wonders, “I think I wield power, but perhaps it is power that wields me.”

The Grace of Kings is fine as far as it goes but at those 623 pages takes too long to do too little. I found Liu’s short stories more to my taste.

Pedant’s corner:- a capital letter on the next word following a colon (why? A colon does not indicate the end of a sentence.) “The crowd’s cheers rose to a crescendo” (No. the crescendo is the rise. Their cheers rose to a climax,) releasing the paper crafts to drift into the dark night sky (the plural of craft, as in ship or aeroplane etc, is craft,) “to not …” (innumerable instances, ‘not to …’ is the usual form, and indeed occurred; once,) “times its” (multiplied by its.) “All the boys had were each other now” (all the boys had was each other,) “Namen’s army were at the walls” (Namen’s army was at the walls,) “who have seen seen” (only one ‘seen’ needed.) “The empire might have lost on land but they could lay siege to the whole island” (sentence structure demands ‘but it could lay seige,) “to no end” (this means ‘without purpose’, Liu meant ‘no end’ ie ‘without limit’.) “‘That makes you think you’ll be better at ruling the world than him?’” (‘What makes you think …’ makes more sense,) laying (lying,) “a pod of crubens beached themselves” (strictly, a pod beached itself,) maws (these are not mouths, they are stomachs,) floatation (flotation,) treaded water (trod water?) “‘How I can face their fathers, mothers, …?’” (‘How can I face…?’)

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