Cover art illustrated by: Sam Weber
The Veiled Throne by Ken Liu
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: The Dandelion Dynasty (Book #3 of 4)
Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Silkpunk
Pages: 1008 pages (Hardcover Edition)
Published: 7th December 2021 by Saga Press (US) & 11th November 2021 by Head of Zeus (UK)
The Veiled Throne is a marvelous story. It is a unique and superbly-written first half to the concluding installment of The Dandelion Dynasty.
“Though each individual mortal experiences life for but a score of years, they can draw upon a store of stories left by all their forbearers. The race of humankind grows toward infinity, even as the nature of each individual is limited. Nature may describe tendencies and circumscribe potentialities, but it is within the power of each soul to nurture itself for another life, to imagine a course not taken, to strive for a different view. Through that yearning by the finite for the infinite, the portraits painted by all the mortal eyes may yet piece together a grander truth than our divine understanding.”
It is a challenging task to review each book in The Dandelion Dynasty by Ken Liu. Each book in the series so far has packed so much content into them, and I don’t foresee this changing in the last book of the series, too. However, I find the task of reviewing The Veiled Throne to be even harder than reviewing The Grace of Kings or The Wall of Storms due to the fact that The Veiled Throne is the first part of a whole package. The Dandelion Dynasty was originally planned to be a trilogy. But the third novel got bigger and bigger until it reached more or less 700,000 words. It is impossible to print 700,000 words novels in one volume. The Veiled Throne and Speaking Bones made up the third book of the series, and Ken Liu acknowledged this at the end of the book. Both The Veiled Throne and Speaking Bones are meant to be read as one book, and I am essentially reviewing only the first half of it here. I loved The Veiled Throne. I did not love it as much as The Grace of Kings or The Wall of Storms. But keep in mind that once I finished reading Speaking Bones this month, I could end up loving The Veiled Throne more.
“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.”
If it has been a while since you read The Wall of Storms, it might take you some time to adjust with reading the first quarter of The Veiled Throne. The Veiled Throne is divided into four parts, and the first 100 pages in the first part of the novel revolve around an entirely new character named Goztan, and this section takes place in the past again. We did not get the continuation to the end of The Wall of Storms until the second part begins. But if you’re in the third book of the series now, I think you will know Ken Liu’s storytelling style is not what we’d call as conventional. But I’m going to assume that you’re reading the third book of the series because you love the previous books, and you have faith in Ken Liu’s storytelling style. The themes and characters’ background explored in Part 1 of The Veiled Throne is incredibly important for the later sections of the book.
“In Dara there is a sacred bond between a teacher and a student. Though I am your slave, I am also your teacher. It’s my duty to protect you from the consequences of bad choices, and that duty is not dissolved just because you didn’t like my lessons.”
From reading The Grace of Kings and The Wall of Storms, I am already a diehard fans of The Dandelion Dynasty. But this does not mean I am reluctant to voice my criticisms, even when they’re very few. Unlike The Wall of Storms where it reeled me from cover to cover, The Veiled Throne is not safe from a slight disruption in pacing. There were two events in the novel where I felt the pacing certainly dragged a bit. The first one is during the beginning of Part 2 of the book, and the other one is in Part 4, which I will get into later. Although Part 2 continues from where The Wall of Storms left off, it also begins with a 100 pages battle scene. In my opinion, this big battle scene happened too early. Though the naval battle itself was creative, cleverly designed, and inventive, most of the characters involved in this warfare were new characters I did not care about yet. Fortunately, after I reached the chapter titled Stowaway, almost every page in The Veiled Throne since then was contemplative, immersive, thought-provoking, and also beautiful.
“As the Ano sages would say… ‘Sometimes a paving stone is essential on the path to mine pure jade.’ Even an impractical idea may spark a better plan down the road.”
And that’s exactly it. A necessary paving stone is what the early sections of The Veiled Throne entail. I haven’t proved this yet at the time of writing this review, obviously, but the entirety of The Veiled Throne is most likely a scintillating paving stone for Speaking Bones. I’ve said it multiple times already, but Ken Liu is one of the most intelligent writers in the science fiction and fantasy space right now. The power of stories, the prominence of legacies, the benefit of education and languages, the deadly price of war, the beauty of cultures, and the difficulty of unity between different beliefs were SOME of the topics and themes discussed in The Veiled Throne. Through the variety of characters Liu created, the character’s actions and philosophies in The Dandelion Dynasty not only made me invested, but they also made me ponder. And this goes for ALL the characters in the series. Not just the returning characters but also the new ones introduced and developed in The Veiled Throne.
“The emperor’s school affiliation or academic accomplishments are not the point. The point is, as a child, the emperor was once inspired by the words of Kon Fiji to defend his friend Rin Coda from arrows raining out of the sky, an incident well-known by every teahouse storyteller. From this, we can infer that scholarship is directly correlated with courage. The more books read, the greater the warrior.”
To avoid spoilers in my review, unless it’s new characters appearing for the first time in The Veiled Throne, I will refrain from using the name of the returning characters in this review. There are many set pieces in The Veiled Throne. Politics, war, scheming, manipulation, battle frenzy, and honor invade the pages of this novel. There are so many characters in this epic fantasy series now, and they come with their own belief, agendas, and motivation. As I read through The Veiled Throne, I never once felt like the characters, technology, and culture were not meticulously developed. And Ken Liu ceaselessly surprised me with each book in the series. The Veiled Throne is in a way much less intense in comparison to The Wall of Storms. However, this does not mean the narrative was ever lacking in its analysis and extrapolation of human behavior.
“Adherence to the teachings of the sages or the gods both require faith. But in every age and among all peoples, the ones who live by faith alone and the ones who reject faith completely are few, while those who stand on the border between belief and disbelief, leaning toward what is convenient at the moment, make up the majority.”
Additionally, I would like to add that Ken Liu simply excels wonderfully at writing lovable and hatable characters. In my review of The Wall of Storms, I mentioned that Liu has crafted some of my most beloved characters in science fiction and fantasy. And he also created one of my most hated characters of all time. This is what he successfully did again in The Veiled Throne. The Blossom Gang is a group of people I initially thought too late to introduce and develop in the book. But I was proven so mistaken by this. After reading Part 4 of The Veiled Throne, I became immensely invested with this group of characters, especially Dandelion and Kinri. And I genuinely can’t wait to see how their existence will help shape the events in Speaking Bones. Of course, talking about my first impression, I thought Cutanrovo would be a boring character. Oh god, I should’ve known that everything Liu displayed in his books is there for many good reasons. Cutanrovo’s brutality and fanaticism are genuinely terrifying because people like Cutanrovo truly exist in our world. It’s all so amazing.
“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.”
Before I discuss Part 4 and the climax sequence of the novel, I need to highly praise Liu’s prose again. There were way too many passages in this book I highlighted because they were so profound. I feel like each passage I highlighted could easily become a topic of discussion among readers. And guess what? I highlighted 78 passages in The Veiled Throne. The Wall of Storms and The Veiled Throne have the most passages I ever highlighted in a single book. And it is very likely this event will be repeated in Speaking Bones. For some perspective, I usually highlight about 10-20 passages in a single epic fantasy novel. But I feel it is a form of injustice to do that with a book in The Dandelion Dynasty.
“The best scholars spend so much time studying the Classics that they forget to eat not because they wish to exercise power as high officials, but because they love the smell of writing knife carving into hot wax and the mind-pleasure of debating the wisdom of the sages with a friend. The tinkerers and wanderers who invent and create do so not to pursue profit, but because they love the freedom they experience when they make a thing: something imperfect, silly, perhaps even useless, but theirs and wholly new.”
Liu didn’t shy away from examining multitudes of topics crucial to The Dandelion Dynasty and our world. Whether it is about how we become more like our enemies in war voluntarily or not, or maybe about the determination to do what is right even if the world is never fair, everything felt seamlessly implemented into the narrative. And there was a passage in the book I can’t shake. It was about how it is normal for those who did NOT personally experience specific suffering to easily romanticize aspects of the past even when the past itself was much worse than the present to those who experienced it speaks volumes about us as individuals. Even though the importance of stories is one of the main topics of The Veiled Throne and the series, Liu exhibited that it is also noteworthy to remember that some experiences are impossible to be replicated through texts and stories.
“She had lived so long as a reader that she had forgotten that a culture could not be reduced to writing, that wisdom could not be imprisoned in books, that to live was to breathe, to dance, to hunt, to forget.”
Finally, let’s discuss the climax sequence in Part 4 of The Veiled Throne as spoiler-free as possible. If you have heard about this novel, you might have heard that it has one of the most original and imaginative climax sequences to grace an epic fantasy novel. Usually, in epic fantasy, a climax sequence is filled with one of the most intense sections of the novel; it is often manifested in battle/assassination/war scenes. The final 300 pages of The Veiled Throne are none of that. Though still relatively tension-packed, the climax sequence of The Veiled Throne arrived in the form of a, wait for it… cooking competition. Exactly. A cooking competition! It’s true that, as I said, The Veiled Throne is technically only the first half of a larger volume, but I’ve never read any epic fantasy novel that ended with a cooking competition. And we can tell from the narrative that Ken Liu is super passionate about this subject. For example:
“It was a painting richer in color than the work of jaded portraitists in money-blinded Dimushi, a symphony more pleasing than the vulgar din generated by the orchestras of traveling folk opera troupes, a tapestry of sensations and textures against the tongue more varied than the smooth silks and rough hempen clothes and nubbly woolen yarns found in Boama, a potpourri of aromas more intoxicating than the famed medicine shops of Çaruza, and a parade of tastes each more astounding than the last, a feast for the senses fit for the gods.”
The passage above is a glimpse of how stunning the description of food and taste in The Veiled Throne is. It is without a doubt that this cooking competition section will be polarizing to readers. And as someone who loved the cooking competition sections, I have to admit that there were minor flaws to the reading experience. Mainly, it is because I think the cooking competition ended up becoming a double-edged blade to the narrative caused by the length of the cooking competition itself. I was very much immersed, impressed, and amazed by the First Contest, but by The Second and even the Third Contest, I think the cooking competition was too long for the novel’s own good. I have no doubt this will pay off nicely in Speaking Bones, but even then, no matter what satisfying pay-off it brings, I don’t think my opinion (at least in my first-time reading) about how this cooking competition is too long will change.
“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.”
But it is a disservice to the climax sequence if I only talk about my minor issues with it. At the end of the day, there is a lot of genius quality in the cooking contests. Not only does Liu develop Dandelion and Kinri deeply here, I am 100% sure it is for the story to come in The Speaking Bones, but Liu’s immeasurable passion for the cooking contests has opened up my mind further. It was brilliant how Liu interconnects cooking, honor, legacy, love, stories, and food together. The appreciation of food, culture, and the point of cuisine and art were undeniably magnificent. Plus, the entire climax sequence was so well-written that I was left hungry every time I read through the pages. The narrative talked in detail about how we are always affected by our mind-pleasure and bias when it comes to experiencing food, art, or stories, and I fully agree with it. When it comes to the matter of taste, what we define as delicious food or great books can differ from one individual to another. Even among individuals with super similar tastes, we frequently still have one or two opinions (even if they’re small) that transform our analysis into something of our own. I will let two quotes from the book justify what I meant:
“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.”
“Weighing the fish requires only a fair scale, but there is no fairness when it comes to taste. The senses are governed by mind-pleasure. If you love a man, you think him handsome; if you hear a song from your childhood, you think it pleasant; if a smell or taste reminds you of home, then you feel its tickling caress in your heart.”
That feeling of tickling caress in my heart is what I feel with each book in The Dandelion Dynasty. The Veiled Throne may be, in comparison, my least favorite installment in the series so far, but the all-consuming narrative is still a near-absolute captivating reading experience. Even with its few flaws, The Veiled Throne is still a riveting prelude to the end of The Dandelion Dynasty. The Dandelion Dynasty by Ken Liu has earned my love, and love, once given, cannot be rescinded. I am equally excited, scared, and sad to finally listen to the voice of the Speaking Bones soon.
“Some of the most important decisions we make in life are not derived from reason, from weighing the fish, from an evaluation of the pros and cons—but from a simple leap of faith, of love that needs no evidence, apology, or argument.”
You can order this book from: Blackwells (Free International shipping)
Special thanks to my Patrons on Patreon for giving me extra support towards my passion for reading and reviewing!
My Patrons: Alfred, Andrew, Andrew W, Amanda, Annabeth, Diana, Dylan, Edward, Elias, Ellen, Ellis, Gary, Hamad, Helen, Jimmy Nutts, Joie, Luis, Lufi, Melinda, Meryl, Michael, Mike, Miracle, Nanette, Neeraja, Nicholas, Reno, Samuel, Sarah, Sarah, Scott, Shawn, Shawna, Xero, Wendy, Wick, Zoe.