Cover art illustrated by: Sam Weber
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: The Dandelion Dynasty (Book #1 of 4)
Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Silkpunk
Pages: 640 pages (Hardcover Edition)
Published: 7th April 2015 by Saga Press (US) & 4th June 2015 by Head of Zeus (UK)
This debut is super underrated. Ken Liu’s reimagining of the birth of China’s Han Dynasty is nothing short of epic, complex, thrilling, and heartbreaking.
“Read a lot of books and try a lot of recipes…When you learn enough about the world, even a blade of grass can be a weapon.”
Let’s start with a bit of background. When I look back, I am surprised by how fast time moved. This series has received the same treatment as The Licanius Trilogy by James Islington, which I’ve read and loved now. I wanted to read this series to its completion by reading them closer to each other. This way, I can retain all the necessary details, and I have a bigger chance of better reading experience. It is why I postponed reading this series for so long. Even though I knew I would enjoy it based on how much I enjoyed Ken Liu’s collection of short stories: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. Since 2017, I kept on thinking that the final book of the series will be released the year after, and nope. The fourth and final book of the series kept getting delayed by another year until 2022. Yes, The Dandelion Dynasty by Ken Liu has been in my TBR pile since 2017. I have wanted to start reading this series for five years, and I own the hardcovers of both the US and UK editions of the series so far. And now, I am pleased to say The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu’s ambitious debut novel, is worth the wait.
“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.”
The Grace of Kings is the first book in The Dandelion Dynasty quartet by Ken Liu. I haven’t read the rest of the series, and things could change starting from The Wall of Storms, but it is not far-fetched to call The Grace of Kings a historical fiction/fantasy novel. My historical knowledge about the founding of the Han Dynasty or the Chu Han Contention is rusty now, but there’s no disputing that this novel is deeply inspired by it. Honestly, it didn’t dawn on me that Liu replicated the exact events of the Chu Han contention until I was near the end of the book. I went into this book as blind as possible, and after I finished it, I did some research, and Ken Liu admitted several times that The Grace of Kings is an epic fantasy reimagining of the founding of the Han Dynasty and the Chu Han Contention. And I loved it so much. Spanning decades of story, The Grace of Kings is complex and epic in scope. It depicted brutal results inflicted by the clash of ideals. It displayed the cost and effect of love, friendship, loyalty, betrayals, war, and ambition as raw as possible. And in the attainment of power, the more power you have, the more power corrupts and wields you.
“There’s never going to be an end to suffering if ‘he deserves it’ is all the justification people need for inflicting pain.”
The main narrative in The Grace of Kings centers around two main characters: The Dandelion, Kuni Garu (based on Liu Bang), and Mata Zyndu (based on Xiang Yu), the Crysanthemum. Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu are two best friends of polar opposites in personality and ideals. While Kuni Garu tends to govern with compassion and intellect, Mata Zyndu governs with honor and overwhelming might. I saw several reviews that accused Ken Liu of plagiarism, and I disagree with this. If this is plagiarism, then every Trojan retelling or reimagining like The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is, too. Ken Liu has repeatedly said in plenty of interviews that the Chu Han Contention, not sure for the rest of the series, is the source material for The Grace of Kings. And although several events were replicated, the characterizations, details, and the minimal fantasy elements implemented made The Grace of Kings its own epic/historical fantasy novel.
“A lord who knows how to wield men is ten times more fearsome than one who knows only how to wield a sword.”
Even though it is true that both Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu are based on real-life historical figures, one thing differs so much from my experience of reading the actual history textbook and The Grace of Kings. I enjoyed The Grace of Kings immensely. I felt incredibly invested with the characters. I was thrilled. I was scared. I was shocked. This is not a character-driven fantasy novel, but Ken Liu has successfully imbued emotions into these pages and sparked my attachments to the characters. I personally did not feel a thing reading about Liu Bang and Xiang Yu’s story in a history textbook. It was an entirely different reading experience to read the feats of Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu. These two are flawed characters trying their best to do what’s right according to their ideals. Kuni Garu seeks to innovate with compassion and forgiveness, and Mata Zyndu insists on sticking to honor and tradition. And it was sorrowful to see how circumstances constantly force them to act according to necessity than to do what’s right according to them. Witnessing Kuni Garu’s character development from his carefree and rebellious beginning up to his position of leadership felt so rewarding. His friendship with Mata Zyndu felt genuine, and the ebb and flow in their relationship caused by different philosophies of life never felt forced. On the other hand, the double pupil Mata Zyndu with his weapons, Na-aroenna and Goremaw, inspires loyalty and awe with his insane strength. And it was not only the soldiers who felt awed by his prowess, I was, too.
“A man who can kill several people with a sword is merely a living weapon. A great warrior can kill thousands of men with just his mind.”
Although I can understand the criticism regarding the lack of female characters, I also cannot help but think this criticism seems overblown. Sure, if you are judging this from the first half of the novel, I can see the accuracy of this statement. But the second half featured many pivotal female characters in a role that decides the outcome of a war. Some of the conflicts in the second half of the novel seriously rely entirely on women taking charge, whether they are generals or not. With Jia, Gin Mazoti, Risana, Soto, Mira, and Kikomi, Ken Liu has crafted strong female characters that don’t rely on strengths and physical prowess. If we’re going to make comparisons, from the top of my mind, Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy feature only about four major female characters throughout the entire trilogy; one of them is Vin, the main character. And I rarely—or never—see anyone criticizing the series for the lack of female characters. Why do people criticized Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings more heavily and loudly than Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy when The Grace of Kings alone already has more memorable female characters than the entirety of Mistborn trilogy? This is just one example. But whether that’s fair or not, I’ll leave that for you to decide for yourself.
“By custom, we wield the sword and wear the armor, but who among you does not know a mother, sister, daughter, friend, who exceeds you in courage and fortitude?
So let us no more think of being compared to women as an insult.”
I have mentioned the minimal fantastical elements of The Grace of Kings earlier. The story takes place in the fictional Islands of Dara. The three dominating fantastical elements were the existence of airships, the meddling gods, and the creature Cruben. Cruben is a great one-horned scale whale of Dara and sovereign of the seas. It’s 200 feet (61 meters) long, and its size is as large next to an elephant as an elephant would be next to a mouse. These aspects being added to the decades-long story and the shifting alliances caused by the continuous rise and fall of empires made the narrative relentlessly compelling for me. The ruthless tactics employed and the flames of ambition (by both humans and gods) ignited to win the conflicts will be judged by history, and I look forward to judging The Grace of Kings and the rest of the series as one package.
“Our lives are too brief to worry about the judgment of others, let alone that of history.”
I do have some words of advice for those of you who are interested in reading The Grace of Kings for the first time. First, ignore the naysayers. Second, this is not a friendly novel for those who have just begun reading epic fantasy. It is complex; there are many threads, characters, and names to remember. And lastly, be patient. Unlike many epic fantasy novels, Liu uses a third-person omniscient narration rather than a third-person limited. I did struggle in some sections in the first half of the story. As I said, Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu are the core of the plot in The Grace of Kings, but Ken Liu was bold enough to take the risk of introducing and focusing on many supporting characters in the first half of the novel. Sometimes it felt like reading a collection of connecting short stories as we relatively seldom get to see events unfolding from Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu’s perspectives in the first half compared to the second half. However, the convergence and the payoff were utterly satisfying. The second half of The Grace of Kings was simply breathtaking, and I found it difficult to put the book down.
“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 Grace of Kings is one of the most criminally underrated novels I’ve read. It is underrated in every sense of the word. The novel has been published for seven years, and it currently has 3.7 average ratings out of 14,300 ratings on Goodreads. It is unbelievably underrated and underhyped. I have a principle of second-guessing reviews from reviewers I do not know. And proven time and time again, this time by The Grace of Kings, I am glad to stand by this principle. I would have missed reading one of the best debuts I’ve read if I had listened to the negative reviews. This is why I always say, if a book interests you already, ignore the negative reviews (seriously, mine included) and just jump into it whenever you feel like you are in the right mood. The Grace of Kings did end in a satisfying standalone manner. But, it also felt like Ken Liu is using The Grace of Kings as a solid foundation for the rest of The Dandelion Dynasty to shine. If my praises for The Grace of Kings are considered an unpopular opinion, let’s just say I am happy to sit and camp in the unpopular bonfire. The Grace of Kings is superbly crafted, and I’ve heard from the fans of the series that The Wall of Storms is even better. I will keep my fingers crossed that I am indeed in the presence of a new addition to my “favorite series of all time” list. I’ll close this review with a passage from Ken Liu himself:
“This is a story very much concerned about all the ways in which every system, however idealistic it may be, tends to have winners and losers and oppressors and the oppressed. The cycle of trying to reach more justice is one that can never end. There is no golden age because we’re always trying to perfect ourselves and yearning towards a future that’s better.”—Ken Liu on The Grace of Kings
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