“A knife is not malicious merely because it is sharp, and a plot is not evil merely because it is effective. All depends on the wielder. The grace of kings is not the same as the morals governing individuals.”
Inspired by the Qin and Han dynasties of ancient China, superstar author Ken Liu chronicles the rise of two friends who grow to oppose one another, and the fate of those surrounding them, who are drawn into a war to topple an empire, in the stupendous epic fantasy, “The Grace of Kings”.
This is book one of the “Dandelion Dynasty”, often hailed as one of the most underrated “great” fantasy series published in the past two decades.
After reading “The Grace of Kings”, I have to concur that the vibe I get is “this is the first book in a signal work in fantasy”.
The story is absolutely sprawling and highly ambitious, documenting the lives of numerous major and minor characters, and their place in the tumultuous times they live in: the last days of the reign of Emperor Mapidéré.
But beyond Mapidéré’s reign lies a new era of tumult, uncertainly, and bloodshed, as rival powers struggle for control of the island kingdoms of Dara.
Mapidéré had brought Dara to heel, creating the first conglomerate of all the islands under his rule, and that of his home island of Xana. But after more than two decades, revolt is seething, and an attempt on the Emperor’s life is made.
The empire seems oppressive. The subjects are dissatisfied. Even the capricious gods of Dara seem ready not only to stir up trouble for trouble’s sake, but also fretting for a change in emperors that can assuage their individual ideals for order and good government (or simply feed their desire for chaos, or to see their individual personal favourite heroes enjoy victory).
And of course, ambitious aristocrats are vying for their own profit, prestige, and ascension. Meantime, high-minded individuals of all classes who genuinely seek change, progression and improvement over Mapidéré’s current regime, take up a righteous cause to overthrow the emperor.
“There’s never going to be an end to suffering if ‘he deserves it’ is all the justification people need for inflicting pain.”
None perhaps, come to believe their cause is more just than Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu.
These two titans may vary in ideology, upbringing, class, and about everything else in between. But two things unite them: a burning desire for change, and to become larger than life.
Kuni (representative of the “Dandelion” of the title for the series) is a loveable loser, low-born, a schemer and con-man, full of charm, and guile. He’s daring, clever, innovative, ambitious. Yet, he’s also full of compassion. He falls in love with a woman above his station and aspires for her hand, though he has nothing to offer her save his devotion to her, and the promise of a brighter future. Even if he doesn’t know how he will attain that future.
Meanwhile the intimidating, double-pupiled, 8-foot tall behemoth Mata Zyndu is descended from nobility, heroes of legend, and lives up to the image.
He’s a fierce warlord of indomitable will, superior physical might and fighting prowess, combined with matchless courage and the ability to inspire his troops. Mata wields famous weapons and rides famous horses into battle, and wants to restore his house to its former glory. Through honour, adherence to tradition, and the might of the sword, he plans to triumph.
These two unlikely friends, Kuni and Mata, find common ground, and eventually become as close as brothers. But power is corruptive and where one tyrant may fall, a new one may arise. Their friendship may not survive the strain of deposing the empire, nor may either of them survive the coming war.
Both main characters Kuni and Mata are complex, very flawed, and the ideals they are striving for do not seem as much fallacious as they seem incomplete. Order without mercy is no more palatable than the reverse. A rebellion without a true cause and purpose is just senseless violence and a waste of life and limb.
Gaining and holding onto to power can be far more difficult than even a bloody rise to power.
And, be careful what you wish for, when you seize control from someone you believe is inadequate. Their inadequacies may actually pale compared to your own, your deficiencies exposed when you finally steal power from the one you believed did not measure up.
These are just some of the lessons Kuni and Mata learn on their rise to fame, and they are harsh lessons. How they handle what they learn is a fascinating character study into what powerful men do when they feel they are doing the right thing, and others must suffer the consequences of their idealism.
“To know the future is to have no choice… to be words fixed on a page by someone else. We can only do what we think is best, trusting that it will all somehow work out.”
The auxiliary cast is MASSIVE, and they are spread over a huge geographic area, the entirety of Dara. Liu lays out their individual stories really well, while clearly illustrating their relevance to the main plot. There are glossaries provided, but beware – if you’re not used to those voluminous casts it may be a challenge to keep track of everyone.
The gods also get lots of attention, and their schemes to manipulate future events, while trying to prevent their counterparts from doing the same. Many of rulers of the other nations in Dara, due to their involvement in how the rebellion proceeds, and the aftermath, get page time, in addition to sundry players who take on major roles in the narrative.
Some of the characters are common born, and would normally have no historical significance, but end up making a huge impact on the conflict. Contrasting this, others are from the nobility, yet they only become footnoted in history, their roles being far from pivotal – save being killed or deposed and clearing the way for bigger players – compared to the lowborn characters.
The reader may not have the opportunity to know these secondary characters intimately, however their stories are often very poignant and particularly hard hitting when they get taken off the board. Some supporting cast we do get to know better, and many were among my favourites. Gin Mazoti, Jia, Kikomi, Soto, Risana and Mira were among the standout auxiliary players for me.
In terms of compelling themes in the novel, they are myriad.
Loss of nationalism, tradition and customs in the face of imperialism; subjugation; rebellion; subjective perception of events from the position of one side of a conflict; clashing of values and ideals; misogyny and the suppression of the power of women, and many more engaging themes permeate the book.
One theme that really stands out to me is, as the opening quote indicates, that rulers should not be judged (and refused to constrained) by typical standards of morality. This is a theme that has always fascinated me.
It is often used as justification for the worst betrayals, murders, and power mongering. But there appears to be an acceptable level of callousness expected, even encouraged when holding onto power, and that may include betraying those closest to you.
One can’t achieve and hold onto power, and one’s life, if one is not willing to do dastardly things that mere commoners would find abhorrent. A ruler must be ruthless, or else they will be judged ruthlessly, including by history, as being ineffective.
The worldbuilding is superb, lots of nuance, and as dark and violent as it is beautiful and compassionate. Liu mixes steampunk elements such as dueling airships, along with facets such as war kites and explosives, and pairs them with the more traditional ancient combat tools of sword and spear.
Two-hundred-foot “Cruben” (great whales), a pantheon of meddling and fickle deities, gorgeous island nations of astounding landscapes, filled with their own unique customs, languages, and beliefs, are all wonderful aspects of the wordlbuilding that I adored.
Liu’s tale deals with the trivialities of administrative details in terms of ruling, and the economic problems of funding wars, in as interesting ad compelling fashion as he handles political scheming, tactics, and larger scale battle sequences. The result is a fully realized world, that feels highly authentic and immersive.
Of note, the interfering gods can disguise themselves as humans, and their non-human divine appearance can be quite frightening. I always love the concept of gods messing around with the lives of mortals, and Liu gives us some delicious moments where it becomes clear that the divine will be favouring certain characters to rise and achieve greatness and others to fall brutally.
One will assuredly believe one is reading real historical events, as Liu mixes methods of storytelling to produce something that feels extremely grand in scope, mythological, yet intimate and personal.
The prose is evocative, smooth, and perfect for the type of story being told. While he writes predominately with the emotional, clinical distance of the historian, Liu simultaneously blends the emotional gravitas and weighty impact of the bard. At times anecdotal, at times highly expository, at times sentimental and nostalgic, full of witticisms, memorable passages, poetic at times, the prose really worked for me.
The switches in allegiance, turns of fortune, back-stabbing, love, infidelity, sacrifice, heroism, utter barbarity, despair, and hope, heart-breaking moments, and bloody battles are quite the heady mix that, paired with the epic scope and feel, make this book a mammoth achievement to match its word-count.
Like the airships in the novel, Liu’s novel soars, and once one stops to appreciate the heights which he achieves, one will find the view absolutely stunning.
I have high hopes that the “Dandelion Dynasty” will find it’s way into my top 25 series of all time. One book in, it’s certainly on the right path.
I have already purchased the other three books in the series, and am eagerly awaiting when I can find time to get to the next installment.