Cover art illustrated by: Sam Weber
The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: The Dandelion Dynasty (Book #2 of 4)
Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Silkpunk
Pages: 880 pages (Hardcover Edition)
Published: 4th October 2016 by Saga Press (US) & Head of Zeus (UK)
A mind-blowing masterpiece. The Wall of Storms is the best second book of a series I’ve read since Words of Radiance.
“Hope was the currency that never ran out, and it was the fate of the poor to toil and endure, wasn’t it?”
Hopeful and inadequate. That’s how I feel right now writing this review. It doesn’t matter how hard I try, it is a futile attempt to capture all the brilliance of this masterwork in a review, but I shall try and hope I can attract more readers into trying this book and series. It’s been almost six years since The Wall of Storms, the second book in The Dandelion Dynasty by Ken Liu came out, and it’s ridiculous how a book as good as this is still so under hyped. After reading more than 500 epic fantasy books, it’s getting harder and harder to feel completely enthralled, hooked, immersed, and transported to a different world. The Wall of Storms did that for me. It made me remember why I continue to love reading epic fantasy. I loved The Grace of Kings, but The Wall of Storms enacted a miracle, a miracle in which this sequel somehow surpassed The Grace of Kings in every possible way. The seeds of Dandelion planted in The Grace of Kings bloomed in The Wall of Storms. Also, before I begin my review, the US edition cover art done by Sam Weber suddenly has a deeper meaning to it after reading the content of this book. With the antlered creature and the berries, you will find out why this cover art is chosen after you read the book. Now, allow me to begin my wall of texts.
“The dreams of the great lords of the world were built upon the blood and bones of the common people. The blossoming of the golden chrysanthemum required the fertilizer made from the ashes of the Hundred Flowers. That was an eternal truth.”
Do you know how sometimes an author requires 100-200 pages, sometimes even longer, before the book gets good? This is certainly not the case with The Wall of Storms. With The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu has established an iron-strong foundation for the early section of this book to instantly grab the reader’s attention. In Whispering Breezes, Ken Liu also planted more seeds of chaos and excellent character groundwork we know will reward its readers in the later sections of the book. But this doesn’t mean the first out of the four parts of the novel were ever boring. Just within the first 260 pages, I’ve highlighted more than 20 passages. This is the calm before the storm section of the novel, and it is already packed with subtle tensions and an immaculate display of literary prose. One out of many examples, we see the truth behind how the Calendrical Dozen was formed. This is told with a story within a story technique, and the revelation of how the humble Orchid joined the Calendrical Dozen was terrific.
“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.”
Remember the passage above, this is one of the many dominant themes in the book. The story in The Wall of Storms begins five years after the end of The Grace of Kings. The aftermath and repercussion of the Crysanthemum-Dandelion war can still be felt, and Whispering Breezes mainly deal with two key plotlines: the Palace Examination and the introduction of Zomi Kidosu and Emperor Ragin’s children. Both Zomi Kidosu and Emperor Ragin’s children are hugely important characters in The Dandelion Dynasty series. Their characterizations and introductions were immediately executed with finesse. Liu tackles the palace examination, Zomi Kidosu’s introduction, and developing the Emperor’s children by juggling between two timeframes magnificently. I personally think Zomi’s flashback chapters contain one of the most endearing portrayals of mentor-apprentice I have ever read in a book. I had such a wonderful time reading the development between Zomi and her mentor, being invested in Emperor Ragin’s Children (especially Princess Thera), and the Palace Examination. As I said earlier, the Palace Examination is supposed to be the calm before the storm moments of the book, but it felt intense already. It felt like Liu improved tremendously as a writer and storyteller in this sequel, and the plotting, characterizations, and literary prose he put on the pages of The Wall of Storms were (in Zomi’s words) so magnidazzlelicious and beautinificent. And then, The Wall of Storms turned from great to something incredible when Whispering Breezes escalated to Gusts and Gales.
“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.”
For years, I have seen political content in epic fantasy sometimes criticized for being uninteresting. I disagree with this. It all depends on execution. And the political intrigues in The Wall of Storms are the most thrilling sections of political conflicts I have read since Martin’s magnum opus of A Song of Ice and Fire. It was 130 pages of relentless deadly political thrillers with no shortage of pulse-pounding and heart-wrenching moments. The betrayals and the anxiety I had when I read this book were real. The reach and outcome of the manipulations and planning were unpredictable. And seeing all the dominos of discord fell one by one, I was seething with true rage and hatred over one character; I am actually angry again now. And this is good. This character is intentionally put there to be hated, at least I think so. I’m not mentioning her name to avoid spoilers, but readers who have read this book will know who I’m talking about.
“The art of war requires withholding information from the enemy as long as possible, and not every victory is worth the pursuit.”
She is undoubtedly a villain through and through. She may think what she was doing was selfless and justified, but it was the other way around from my perspective. She was extremely selfish because of her willingness to justify ALL her ruthlessness, provocations, and manipulations because of her outrageous paranoia. SHE, and only SHE, thought her methods were necessary. After every vile thing this character did, not just in part two of the novel but part four as well, Cersei Lannister actually looked like a saint compared to her. This level of emotional investment can be achieved when the author is masterful in writing both lovable and despicable characters. And Liu has successfully developed the myriad of characters in The Dandelion Dynasty so far, new and returning, with sharp precision. The Gusts and Gales of emotions have convinced me The Wall of Storms would earn a 5 out of 5 stars rating from me. And then, Tempest from the North arrived, and I was proven mistaken.
“What courage it took for the starving and the poor to continue the mere act of existence, of survival, of endurance. Such quiet acts of heroism were not celebrated, and yet they made up the foundation of civilization, far more than all the honorable sentiments of the Ano sages and the pretty words of the nobles.”
I was wrong, not because this is not awesome, but because a 5-stars rating is not enough. Yes, I would give The Wall of Storms a 6 out of 5 stars rating if I could. We have seen Liu’s exceptional capabilities in scheming and writing political thrillers, but how about battles and war scenes? Evidently, as much as I loved the battle and war scenes in The Grace of Kings, it turns out I saw merely glimpses of Ken Liu’s talent in writing battle scenes in The Grace of Kings. And honestly speaking, that was not enough to prepare me for the emotional onslaughts to come in Tempest from the North. Everything in this book simply exceeded my expectations. Liu has constructed some of the most heart-hammering sequences of battle scenes I have ever read in the genre. Not for one, not two, but several; the third part of the novel comprised about 300 pages of the whole book, and it was embedded with jaw-dropping scenes inflicted by the exhilarating dance of hurricanes. In order to maximize the effect of the clash of civilizations for its readers, Ken Liu made sure two crucial aspects were set in place.
“It is only when one is away from home that one can see its beauty.”
First, Liu showed that the invaders are not merely caricatures of evil villains. They are real people with real distinct cultures and struggles. Similar to the characters in the book, I was filled with wonder as they gazed upon the impenetrable and mythical Wall of Storms. Wall of Storms is a line of the cyclone that rose up to the sky from the sea. The thrill of discovery and the dangers of visiting a new land felt palpable, and it was fruitful to know the invaders’ perspectives and backgrounds. In a similar fashion to Dara, The Land of Ukyu and Gonde felt rich with history. In The Grace of Kings, Liu introduced us to a gigantic creature called cruben, the massive whale that ruled the sea in Dara. In The Wall of Storms, Liu introduced Garinafins with an exploding impact, and the face of the world will never be the same again with this creature that ruled the sky in existence.
“I was taught that what we fill our hearts with has much more to do with our fates than our native talents or circumstances. I was named Dissolver of Sorrows, and I intend to live up to my name. If our situation seems hopeless, we can either give in to it and lament our fortune, or revise the script and chart ourselves a new course. We’re always the heroes of our own stories.”
And then secondly and the most important one: the characters. I need to emphasize this point again, and I wish I could keep doing it. Liu has created and developed some of the utterly well-written characters I have ever read, especially the female characters. I am seriously astounded and impressed by Liu’s depth of characterization here. I actually pity the readers who discontinued reading the series because they thought the series lacked well-written female characters just from reading The Grace of Kings. I disagree with this perspective, I knew Liu was playing the long game, and readers get to reap the reward here. Readers who gave up on the series after reading The Grace of Kings would not get to know some of the best female characters to ever be put in a novel. Whether you love or hate the characters, Liu excels in his characterizations. Simple as that. Gin Mazoti, Princess Thera, and Zomi Kidosu, among many other characters in the book, were some of the most amazing characters I have come across in fantasy. Not just because they are female, but because they were supremely well-written. This is especially true for Gin Mazoti, the legendary marshal of Dara, a character I loved dearly since her first appearance in The Grace of Kings, and now that praise has been forged with an eternal flame.
“There are no born heroes, and legends are just stories. Gin, you know the truth as well as I. But the world sometimes demands a man or a woman to step forward to embody the will of the many, and thus are legends and heroes born. True courage comes not from being certain and unafraid, but from doing what must be done even while being terrified and full of doubts.”
My deep connections with the characters are why the invasions of Dara felt so monstrous. The Lyucu inhabitants caused a cyclone of deaths in the Islands of Dara with their arrival. And I was left emotional, reeling, exhausted, and terrified by the savage demonstration of brutality, violence, and destruction. I was frightened by the massacre and yet enchanted by the narrative to keep turning the pages of The Wall of Storms. I was scared because I did not want to see characters I loved encounter their demise, but I could not function properly in real life without finding out the final outcome of the immense confrontations of whirlwinds. And so I continued. And, of course, the heavens shook, and the earth trembled when Liu delivered the coup de grace in A Clash of Typhoons.
“Though all life is an experiment, there are moments of purity of purpose that demand no justification. Today, Dara is under threat of a dark storm that has no comparison. There is no long view that can justify enslavement and capitulation. When the only alternative is death and servitude, I believe all of us know what must be the right choice.”
The last 130 pages of The Wall of Storms exhibited intricate and breathtaking climax sequences. Rekindling the fire of hope is never easy. Seeing our beloved characters struggle to ignite that tiny and necessary spark in the threat of overwhelming darkness and evil made me emotional. Liu also unleashed his creativity in devising clever and believable military tactics during the climactic Battle of Zathin Gulf. The mechanisms and biology behind the technologies and creatures used in this battle were explained thoroughly. The aerial battles in The Wall of Storms are the finest aerial battles I have ever read in an epic fantasy novel. Charged with the silkmotic force, the fiery detonations across the sky to repel the invaders seemed like they happened in front of me. It was an incredibly cinematic and unforgettable pandemonium; the war is the highest test of valor in the face of horror, malice, and despair. Heavy sacrifices (unfortunately and realistically) will have to be made. But can the House of Dandelion achieve victory? Well, I have said more than enough in this wall of text. I will leave the detailed captivating reading experience and outcome for you to find out for yourself.
“Every cupa stone can be sacrificed, as long as the game is won.”
I unsheathe the Doubt Ender when I articulate this, The Wall of Storms is an indisputable and marvelously crafted masterpiece. Brimming with characters that sink deep under your skin, engaging epic war scenes, meticulously expansive world-building, and lyrical prose equipped with the pearl of wisdom, The Wall of Storms is hands down one of the best fantasy books of all time. The content inside The Wall of Storms felt equivalent to reading two superlative epic fantasy novels in one package. The judgment of history will decide whether my praises for The Wall of Storms are well-deserved or not. I am not sure whether or how the second half of the series could top this book, but I am happy to be proven wrong. Based on everything I’ve read by Ken Liu so far, I feel inclined to state that he is a genius storyteller, and it’s safe to say he has become one of my top favorite authors. On that note, time for me to end this wall of text with this parting message: I encourage you to read this series. The Dandelion Dynasty is now included as one of my top favorite series of all time, and I am hoping The Veiled Throne and Speaking Bones will make me love the series even more. Bravo, Ken Liu. I am absolutely in awe of this masterpiece.
“When you’ve lived for as long as I have, you realize that the greatest pleasures in life are not very impressive at all. It’s better to have one true friend who can understand the voice in your heart when you pluck out a hesitant tune on the zither than to have the unthinking adoration of millions.”
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