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Review – THE WALL OF STORMS – by Ken Liu

Wall of storms

“True courage is to insist on seeing when all around you is darkness.”

Fierce tribes riding dragon-like creatures, rebellion, political machinations within his own court, bitter rivalry and scheming amongst his family members, and the spectre of his betrayal of the famous Hegemon, all combine, to threaten to spoil the peace of the former bandit king Kuni Garu’s reign as Emperor Ragin, in the follow-up to the astounding first book in the “Dandelion Dynasty”, which is called “The Grace of Kings.”

For my first completed book of the new year, here is my review of “The Wall of Storms.”

**Please note**this review touches on events that occurred in previous book in the series – thus potential SPOILERS for the previous book.**

“A god of war is also the god of those who are caught in the wheel of eternal struggle, who fight on despite knowledge of certain defeat, who stand with their companions against spear and catapult and gleaming metal, armed with only their pride, who strive and assay and press and toil, all the while knowing that they cannot win.

“You are not only the god of the strong, but also the god of the weak. Courage is better displayed when it seems all is lost, when despair appears the only rational course.”

We return to the lands of Daru, five years into the rule of Ragin, the victor of the Crysanthemum-Dandelion war. Ragin has tried to implement changes that will set his rule apart from that of the fallen dynasty of Emperor Mapidéré. But making those changes has not been easy, and heavy lies the head that wears the crown. Strife over succession, with potential heirs coming from Kuni’s union with both of his wives, will pave a path to contention, betrayal, and bloodshed.

Even as Ragin sees one of the keys to improvement in being in the education and advancement of Daru’s youth, a young scholar named Zomi will challenge the status quo, and make Kuni think about whether or not his reign is truly an improvement, or just more of the same stagnation and oppression that he rebelled against and sought to overthrow.

Meanwhile, Ragin’s betrayal of his friend-closer-than-brother, Mata Zyundu, known as the Hegemon, the intimidating, double-pupiled, 8-foot tall behemoth descended from nobility, and heroes of legend, has not been forgotten.

Matu is now a legend himself. The downtrodden lines of the old Tiro kings will exploit this legendary status, to their own advantage, in an attempt to bring themselves back to prominence, and incite rebellion against Ragin. Once more, the land of Daru will devolve into revolution.

The years of reign of the Emperor known as “The Four Placid Seas”, promise to be anything but calm.

“Hope was the currency that never ran out, and it was the fate of the poor to toil and endure, wasn’t it?”

With finesse and care, Liu’s characterization continues to be fantastic.

As with “The Grace of Kings”, the cast is absolutely massive, and we are introduced to many more new, exciting characters. How Liu orchestrates all of these characters having their own unique voice and storyline, interweaving with the rest, no matter how minor the characters might be, is truly miraculous.

Whereas there seemed to be a reliance on male characters in the first book, incredible female characters dominated this second installment in the “Dandelion Dynasty”.

Gin Mazoti, the master strategist, one of my favourites from the first book, is as prideful, formidable, and daunting as ever. Thera, Kuni’s daughter, blends the smarts, charm, and compassion of her father Kuni with an underrated package. Zomi, the disabled, brilliant student, shows enormous scholarly potential, yet has a chip on her shoulder. Fearsome Tanvanaki, daughter and heir of the Lyucu king, is one to be reckoned with.

But Jia is the character, for me who stood out most in this book. Here is the perfect example of someone who seemed more subdued, even sidelined, and in the background in the first book, who was foreshadowed to play a larger role.

Well that larger role explodes, and Jia emerged to become the main manipulator and instigator for this second book in the series. Jia appeared steadfast, pragmatic, and cool-headed, yet more of a support for Kuni, than a political player. In “The Wall of Storms”, she utterly ruthless and conniving, as she strives to outdo her perceived rival, Consort Risana, and ensure her son is the successor to Kuni. The lengths she will go to, for that goal, are shocking, and often appalling, and have devastating results.

Liu describes his world “silkpunk”, and wow, is it a fascinating concept. On his website, Liu says,

“As I wrote the ‘Dandelion Dynasty’, a grand tale of both technology and magic, melding past-reinterpretation with future-hopecrafting, drawing on literary traditions from across the world, I struggled to explain the book to people.

“‘Silkpunk’ was the shorthand I came up with to describe the technology aesthetic I wanted for the ‘Dandelion Dynasty’ series as well as the literary approach I used in composing the books.

In crafting the silkpunk aesthetic, I was influenced by the ideas of W. Brian Arthur, who articulates a vision of technology as language. The task of the engineer is much like that of a poet in that the engineer must creatively combine existing components to solve novel problems, thereby devising artifacts that are new expressions in the technical language.

In the silkpunk world of my novels, this view of technology is dominant. The vocabulary of the technology language relies on materials of historical importance to the people of East Asia and the Pacific islands: bamboo, shells, coral, paper, silk, feathers, sinew, etc. The grammar of the language puts more emphasis on biomimetics–the airships regulate their lift by analogy with the swim bladders of fish, and the submarines move like whales through the water. The engineers are celebrated as great artists who transform the existing language and evolve it toward ever more beautiful forms.

Similarly, the literary approach itself mixes and matches elements from diverse global literary traditions that I feel at home in, and tropes and techniques from East Asian historical romances are deliberately juxtaposed and combined with elements from Western epic narratives. The text itself reflects the same poet-engineer mindset. The Aeneid, Records of the Grand Historian, Paradise Lost, Beowulf, Han Dynasty poetry … all served as sources of inspiration, re-invented and re-purposed to tell a brand-new tale.

Finally, the “-punk” suffix in this case is functional. The silkpunk novels are about rebellion, resistance, re-appropriation and rejuvenation of tradition, and defiance of authority, key “punk” aesthetic pillars. The ‘Dandelion Dynasty books’ are ultimately a story about modernity and the constitutive story we tell to feel at home in it.”

I love this world, and the addition of the miraculous titular Wall of Storms – the mythical line of the cyclones rising up from the sea depths to the edge of the sky – was a phenomenal and captivating central piece added to the worldbuilding in the novel.

The reader, through particularly through Luan’s escapades, will be bedazzled with sense of wonder, discovery and the danger. New lands, such as Ukyu and Gonde are introduced. We meet the rulers of the sky, the terrifying and seemingly invincible Garinafins, and woe to the warriors of Daru, when they must face these airborne menaces. Finally, the complicated, meddling gods of Daru, continue to make their presence felt, as they touch the lives of the characters in new and unique ways.

Liu’s expansive, mind-boggling land, naval, and aerial battles and in “The Wall of Storms” are fantastic. The major engagement in the novel – Battle of Zathin Gulf – is written like Pearl Harbour meets the Norman Conquest. Airships powered with the the silkmotic force falling out of the sky, spectacular explosives, giant arrows flying, Garinafins breathing fire, wow! One of the most thrilling elements of Liu’s depictions of these conflicts is that he includes multiple perspectives, including those of the commanders and the lesser fighters, and how their individual parts in the battle matter to the overall outcome.

The strategies are ingenious, and the back-and-forth nature of the fighting – with each side swapping places continuously as losing, then gaining, the upper hand – makes for a nail-biting and strenuous affair, as the reader is on the edge of their seat, turning the page anxiously for the next countermove and catastrophic loss, or glorious victory.

This book hits particularly hard with the dramatic character deaths. Liu throws on his GRRM “I will kill ANY character” hat, and offs a lot of heroes, along with villains, and everyone in between, in “The Wall of Storms.” Some of these deaths will make you cheer, some will make you weep. The unpredictability of who perishes in the thick of the action, helps to turn up the tension and angst over the fate of your favourite – or hated – characters to a fever pitch.

There are so many themes I could discuss that are found in this book, but the one that resonates the most with me is the theme of noble, or ignoble, intentions going horribly awry, and unintended consequences arising that come back around to affect not only the actor, but all those surrounding them. I won’t expand on this theme here, as I normally do. Just go read the book, and I believe you will see what I am referring to.

Liu’s lush prose is wonderful, and how he weaves sage words of advice, philosophy, aspirations, darkness, and optimism, in lyrical yet accessible fashion, is marvellous. What I love the most about the prose is how fitting it is for the absolutely epic scale of the book. Fantasy sagas inspired by the Qin and Han dynasties of ancient China, deserve an elevated style that can recount such heroic and tragic events. Liu certainly provides such a style of writing, and I love the results.

“You see, you enjoyed my lectures on the Incentivists and the Patternists because I dressed them up as lessons on how to fly a balloon. A good idea is more easily absorbed if it is given the right expression, and that is why even when you have the right answers, you’ll convince more people when you present them with good handwriting and proper sentence construction.”

The political manipulations, fabulously cinematic battle scenes, philosophy, love, loss, heroism, and spectacle, make this an addictive read that will keep you thinking about the book long after you’ve finished.

Indisputably, this is one of the most ambitious, complex, intricate, and masterfully written fantasy series I have ever read, two books in to the totality of four books.

There was time, decades ago, that I could never conceive of any fantasy series topping “Lord of the Rings”. Since then, my reading has progressed, and while Tolkien will always be iconic, it has been some years since “Lord of the Rings” has been replaced as my favourite fantasy series of all time. I have become more well-read, and discovered more and more books that have surpassed the magnificence of even the great JRR.

I don’t at all foresee “Dandelion Dynasty” supplanting Janny Wurts’ “Wars of Light and Shadow” at the top of my list, or GRRMs “A Song of Ice and Fire” as number two.

However I believe the stupendous “Dandelion Dynasty”, once I have completed the series, will definitely figure in my top five, perhaps even as high as number three. We shall see!

Onward to “The Veiled Throne”!

Read The Wall of Storms Here

 

Check Out Some of Our Other Ken Liu Content

Review – THE GRACE OF KINGS by Ken Liu

Interview With Author Ken Liu

Review – The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

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