“We are embedded in strands of love and hatred, a web that glows in the sunlight of history, bedecked in pearls of blood and fragments of bone.”
Author Ken Liu’s brilliant yet unconventional brand of storytelling is on full display in the astounding third book of “The Dandelion Dynasty”, entitled “The Veiled Throne”.
Liu brings us back to the aftermath of the horrific war between Dara and the warlike Lyucu clans. The Lyucu are in a strategic position to extract all the advantages in negotiating any tentative peace. Yet is its plain both sides know that any peace will be temporary.
The harsh occupation by the Lyucu of their enemies’ territories and attempts at subjugation, and the prospect of more Lyucu reinforcements on the way from beyond the Wall of Storms has created a ticking time-bomb, fragile cessation of hostilities that must only, inevitably, explode.
At the heart of this, Princess Théra of Dara—daughter of Empress Jia—abdicates the position of Empress in favour of her brother Phyro, seeking salvation for her beleaguered subjects. Allying with the tribal leader Takval in a dynastic marriage, Théra and Takval set out on an incredibly dangerous mission, with only a very remote chance of success.
The mission? Journeying to the Lyucu fortress of Ukyu-Gondé, and trying to forestall any Lyucu reinforcements before they can reach Dara, and provide the Lyucu the ultimate tactical and numerical advantage that will ensure they remain conquerors, and that the people of Dara sink to no better than enslaved.
Meanwhile, the ever-scheming dowager Empress Jia is up to her usual devious and deep plotting. She manages to paint the proud and obstinate but loyal Gin Mozoti – one of Dara’s most revered heroes – as a traitor, in order to neuter her. She refuses to relinquish the reins of power to her stepson Phyro, a brave and honourable yet and idealist and an inexperienced leader, who chafes at being constrained from being emperor.
Sides will be taken in the Dandelion court, to see who will emerge as the true ruler, and rightful heir to Kuni Gara’s throne. Jia believes all she does is for good, and that her careful plans to eventually destroy the Lyucu that scorn military action are the wise route, but what will be the evil repercussions of all her actions?
“In our histories, we call those who kill thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions, great, but they are often little more than hollow shells, walking corpses into which we project our fantasies of what heroism and nobility look like. I know what an obsession with vengeance and heroism did to my nephew; I do not believe that is what your mother would want for you.”
And all the while, Tanvanaki, embattled Pékyu of the occupying Lyucu, who has married another of Kuni’s son and once-aspirant for the emperor’s throne – Prince Timu – must control her own thanes, among them the extreme, fanatical hardliner Cutanrovo, and the mercurial and cunning but loyal Goztan, in order to secure her hold on the islands of Dara and Rui.
With a character cast this big, and expanding with each volume in the series, as new generations surge to the forefront, it’s a true testament to Liu’s skill that the major ones don’t get muted, while the author still gives the minor players their due, and often ends up making them fan favourites. Gin Mozoti will always have my heart as one of the series’ most incredible characters. Yet Goztan, who gets a lot of page time, especially early in the book, also emerged as one I really enjoyed.
Most of course, will hate Jia on an elemental level, but I can’t help being drawn to her, as she is so fascinating, clever, and formidable, as she is manipulative, misguided, and terrible. Regardless of what she tells herself (and the reader) it is clear that she desires, above all else, to hold onto power. Deeply flawed characters will always get my attention, and Jia truly has it now, as a standout in “The Dandelion Dynasty”.
The burgeoning relationship and true partnership, and all they endure in their storyline, with Théra and Takval, was one of the greatest aspects of the book. Toof and Radia also made their presence felt in a big way with me, and finally I must mention the whole Blossom Gang, especially Dandelion and Kinri, as captivating my attention.
To call Lui’s wordbuilding epic and sprawling is like calling the universe “vast” – it fails to do it justice. Awash with meddling gods, monsters, steeped in lore, foundational myths, allegorical mythology, tales within tales that span centuries, one of the highlights (for some readers who disliked this element, it would be potentially a lowlight) of this book in particular for me was a bragging-rights-on-the-line cooking competition between two restaurants.
“Remember that cooking and eating are about more than sustenance. Food is a language of its own. Chewing up tough meat and vegetables to feed us one mouthful at a time was how parents spoke to us before we had grown teeth or learned our first words; making their favorite dishes and leaving them on the ancestral altar is how we tell our parents that we love them when they can no longer hear us. We honor our past and hope for the future when we cook and eat.”
Another great aspect of the worldbuilding in “The Veiled Throne” is that we are treated to an in-depth, fascinating examination of the customs and history of the tribal Lyucu, their indigenous roots and spiritual connection to land, and why they hate Dara so much.
The themes tackled by Liu in this series, including in “The Veiled Throne”, are profound and engaging.
Xenophobia, cultural identity and cultural assimilation, racism, intolerance, legacy, educational advantages, legacy, honour, war, unity, politics, ambition, scheming, manipulation, battle fury, loyalty, family, compromise in relationships, deep philosophy, and more, are all elements of this brilliant novel. The theme that stuck with me, however, was exemplified by the cooking competition.
“Mind-pleasure comes from love, Kinri, love of sister, parent, friend, country, literature, beauty itself. A great lady I met at Lake Tututika on that outing taught me that. Love allows us to taste the fish, not just to weigh it. “And so, the best way to evoke mind-pleasure is to tell a story about love. That’s what all great art, fine cooking included, is about.”
While the competition is definitely allegorical in nature – with one restaurant having a distinct resource advantage while the other restaurant has to rely on innovation and cunning if they have a hope to win – one of the things Liu speaks here, with the competition, is the fact that individual appreciation of food, art, cuisine, is just fine.
That we can find something amazing, even if it is different from something else that we ALSO find amazing. I loved this theme, and it’s a great reminder, especially when it comes to appreciating all types of literature.
The action sequences continue to be mind boggling, and on such an epic scale, so intense, and so creative and unconventional (there is a BAMBOO submarine assault!) that I had to go back and re-read them several times. Outstanding stuff!
The prose is stupendous. There is so much quotable material from this book, yet I will add one of my favourites below.
“Everyone is a storyteller… That’s how we make sense of this life we live. Misfortune and affliction test us with one blow after another, most of which we don’t deserve. We have to tell ourselves a story about why to make all the random manipulations of fate and fortune bearable.”
This is a long book, but it’s a thousand pages of incredible, poignant storytelling, with everything one would want from an epic fantasy novel, including taunt and escalating tension-filled political plotting, romance, love, loss, betrayal, philosophy, cultures clashing, and epic battles occurring simultaneously via air, sky, and land.
Some parts the reader will find less scintillating than others (there are dozens of page devoted to a camera obscura) , but in terms of scope, story, uniqueness, and sheer creative genius, you’d be challenged to find more than a handful of fantasy series of this mammoth length that live up to billing the way this book and the Dandelion Dynasty does.
Onto the finale, “Speaking Bones”!