Cover art illustrated by: Tony Mauro
Speaking Bones by Ken Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: The Dandelion Dynasty (Book #4 of 4)
Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Silkpunk
Pages: 1047 pages (Hardcover Edition)
Published: 21st June 2022 by Saga Press (US) & Head of Zeus (UK)
I am labeling Ken Liu as a genius. Speaking Bones has launched The Dandelion Dynasty to become the best series of 2022.
“What did that goddess-like lady say? If you do not like the stories you’ve been told, fill your heart with new stories. If you do not like the script you’ve been given, design for yourself new roles.”
Since The Wall of Storms, I’ve mentioned the difficulty of reviewing each book in The Dandelion Dynasty, and that statement hasn’t changed here. It is even more prevalent. I’ve read and written more than 600 reviews now, and each volume in The Dandelion Dynasty, especially Speaking Bones, are some of the most difficult reviews to write for three main reasons. The first one is it is impossible and futile to try and tell the magnificence of the series through a few reviews; this series is an experience, and it is something you should start and complete for yourself. No reviews in the world will ever be able to capture the multitude of impactful depths Liu poured into this series. The second reason being each book in The Dandelion Dynasty packed a myriad of glorious content. Although The Dandelion Dynasty is technically a quartet, each book feels like I’ve read two or three epic fantasy worth of content. The third reason, I’ve never highlighted quotes from a book or series as much as I did for The Dandelion Dynasty. With 181 quotes, Speaking Bones alone is by far the most highlighted book I’ve ever read. This quantity is unprecedented. As I always say, I usually highlight about 10-40 quotes per book. But almost every paragraph and sentence in The Dandelion Dynasty demands to be highlighted, remembered, and re-remembered. All of these made reviewing Speaking Bones so challenging. The Dandelion Dynasty is a special series. And although I fully understand my review won’t be able to do this book and series justice, I will still attempt it in the hope of convincing at least one or two people to give this series a read. Because through that, I will know I’ve succeeded in making the world a bit brighter.
“The world may not be fair, but we must strive to make it so. The world is a dark place, but we must strive to make it brighter.”
The Veiled Throne functioned as the first half of the final book of The Dandelion Dynasty. But there’s always a second act. Always. And the second act to finally conclude the series is manifested in Speaking Bones. In part 1 of The Veiled Throne, we encountered a new important character from The Lands of Ukyu and Gonde: Goztan. This was done in a flashback format. But that is no longer the case here. The last chapters of The Veiled Throne were centered on our main characters in The Islands of Dara. We are not getting the continuation to this side of the story until we reach Part 2 of the novel. But believe me, the wait will be worth it. In Part 1 of Speaking Bones, Hail-Pummeled Flowers, the story focuses on our main characters in The Lands of Ukyu and Gonde. And without mentioning any spoilers, part 1 of the novel immediately showcased the main tone of the narrative that will be displayed even more powerfully in the rest of the novel. Incredibly emotional, thought-provoking, contemplative, and so intense.
“The shamans say that the weapons of the Fifth Age were unnatural and wicked, but I do not agree. My mother always told me that there is nothing inherently good or wicked in the nature of tools, for they only serve to amplify what is already present in the hearts of humankind… My parents are good and seek to free the Agon, and in their hands the weapons of Dara bolster good. We show our character not by the weapons we choose, but through the purpose for which we fight and manner in which we wield them.”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. As I said, The Veiled Throne and Speaking Bones are two parts of one big novel. That means what we are reading in Speaking Bones is almost an entire consecutive climax sequence and conclusions. But with proper build-up and superb pacing. And this notion applies to all five parts of the novel, starting from Part One, where the final confrontation between the Agon and Lyucu storyline is executed. I have no shame in admitting that I couldn’t predict where the story was going. I was just astounded by how well-written the big aerial battle was. But more importantly, I already LOVED the themes that Liu discussed in Part One. A FEW examples: the meaning of eternity, what defines good or evil, why the cycle of violence is recycled endlessly, how no one is a villain in their stories, and what is often used as justification for the act of killing. All of them were delivered with a freezing impact. And this is just from Part One! Everything that happened in Part One was harrowing, depressing, bittersweet, and memorable. And these work well in preparing readers for the upcoming chaos and drama in Part Two of Speaking Bones: Thunder-Awakened Forest.
“In Dara, it is said that there is often little to divide the madness of tyrants from the grace of kings, and heroes and villains alike demand sacrifices of others. The difference, if there is one, lies in why the sacrifices are being sought: to satisfy the ambition of the few or to secure the freedom of the many.”
One of the best things about The Dandelion Dynasty has always been how splendid Ken Liu incorporates the super engaging battle scenes and the various deep themes into the story. We, epic fantasy readers, tend to love reading scenes of bloodshed, violence, and massive war scenes, but I think an SFF author has to be careful about applying these to their books. These devastating scenes, without any emotional weight and proper setup, would end up being mere flashy scenes that hold no meaning to me. Fortunately, this negative situation and feelings of boredom never happened throughout my time reading The Dandelion Dynasty. The concept of power, its attainment, and the corruption from wielding it is one of MANY themes that Liu insert into The Dandelion Dynasty. We arrived at the final stage of its searing effect in Speaking Bones. Teeth on the board. One who wields power must understand the consequences of wielding it. Or it will end up wielding the supposed wielder instead. These themes and the perpetually superlative characterizations, background development, and motivation building for the myriad of characters throughout the series imbued insanely terrifying emotional weight and stakes in the battle scenes and crimson conflicts.
“Soldiers always fight out of love: love of life, love of family, love of homeland. Many do end up fighting for the wrong lord or the wrong cause. But your father always said, ‘They are not mean in their nature, but made mean by the meanness of their rulers.’ Never be so certain that you’re right that you can justify the killing of thousands without shivering from doubt.”
The destructive sunflower bloom of conflagrations and countless bloodshed poured in the big battles like the Battle of the Crescent Island felt palpable, vivid, immersive, and pivotal. Before you drown in my overwhelming praises for Speaking Bones, or The Dandelion Dynasty, I feel inclined as a reviewer to mention no war scenes in the series top over The Battle of Zathin Gulf in The Wall of Storms. This isn’t to say The Battle of Crescent Island, or the Battle of Pan I’ll talk about later, was ever uninteresting, but let’s put it this way. If The Battle of Crescent Island and The Battle of Pan are 5 stars material, The Battle of Zathin Gulf is a 6 out of 5 stars material. I know, for one thing, that several readers won’t like the structure Liu used to depict The Battle of Crescent Island. The Battle of Crescent Island is divided into three huge chapters. And every chapter ended with a cliffhanger immediately followed by a long chapter about the new specific invention crafted to be utilized in the battle. This can be slightly disruptive to the pacing. Those who don’t like reading a chapter ending in a cliffhanger might have an issue with this as they won’t be able to read the continuation of the cliffhanger chapters without reading a 30-40 pages chapter about the creation of a new invention first. But I loved it so much. Though it’s true it did decrease the tension of the battle, the juxtaposition between battle scenes and technology crafting demonstrated Liu’s spellbinding storytelling skill. Change is a constant, and everyone has to adapt.
“There are consequences for every change, most of which cannot be anticipated. The belief that all wrongs can be righted merely by the desire to do good is… worrisome. Even the wisest laws and the most dedicated ministers will produce injustice, so long as humans are frail and selfish.”
Speaking of cliffhangers and technologies, the end of Part Two of Speaking Bones will require readers to be patient again. It can be a bit hard, especially after such a pulse-pounding, dramatic, and enthralling turn of events that ended Part Two satisfyingly. Part Two plunged readers immersed in Dara into sceneries of carnage in the land and the sky. Through engineering that changed the shape of the future, exceeding even the Silkmotic bolt’s capability, the new arsenal of weapons created resulted in climactic duels and fiery detonations. But Part Three, in my opinion, was different and absolutely worth it. By the end of the series, Part Three of Speaking Bones became one of the most crucial sections in the novel. But above it all, excluding the importance of the chapters here, I think Part Three was exquisitely meditative and impressive.
“This was the mortal condition, she realized. She would never know with certainty the right path; she would never experience enough to act with absolute conviction; she would never be able to eliminate all suffering. All she could do was to act in the here and now, to live and die for love, to fight and battle for friendship, to trust in a conscience that was never perfect but capable of being perfected, to scintillate in the bright light of winter on the frozen beach suspended between the eternal ocean and the inconstant land for the brief instant allotted to us all.”
Unlike Part One and Two of Speaking Bones, Part Three, Stone-Twisted Roots, was relatively calmer. At least for the one in The Islands of Dara. The way Liu implemented technologies and inventions into The Dandelion Dynasty is utterly clever. I have always mentioned this, I love epic fantasy series that dares to blend technology and science into their epic fantasy series while keeping it secure that it is still an epic fantasy series. The blending of genres is one of the things that Liu excelled in his storytelling. This is proven in ALL of his books. And that is once again re-established in Speaking Bones. Technologies and inventions often dictate how civilization advanced, and the intelligent practicality and importance of innovations and technology were not exclusively designed for war and obliteration. Most of Part Three centered around the dominant characters from the second half of The Veiled Throne, and here Liu also revealed the writing zither. I loved everything about it. Not only does Part Three enhance the quality of The Veiled Throne, but the philosophies and themes of healing, redemption, kindness, mercy, peace, war, life, and death embedded into Part Three constantly hit me like a brick. I will not spoil you with anything about this, and I will talk about this briefly. The origin story of Totoryoana (or Rufizo Mender) and the story of the three swords are some of the best origin or mythical stories I’ve ever read. Simple as that. Plus, it again exhibited Liu’s wonderful talent for writing short stories. It is all SO GOOD.
“There was nothing ordinary about being ordinary; to love and to be loved: That was the quintessence of the extraordinary. Only by being apart from her beloved did she finally love herself; only when she had learned to love herself did she truly begin to love.”
Ken Liu saved the best of Speaking Bones in Part Four: The Fruits of Knowledge. It is, after all, the riveting denouement to the series. This is where everything came to an end. And I mean, really everything. One of my favorite things about reading The Dandelion Dynasty, or a well-structured epic fantasy series, is how we can look back and realize how much has been planned and prepared since the beginning of the series. This goes back to events in The Grace of Kings. The deadly long game that has been cultivated since The Grace of Kings and The Wall of Storms by one of the most spectacular and despicable characters I’ve ever read reached its final stage in this section as well. And although I ended up discovering the truth of her long game sooner than expected, seeing the full revelations still brought me relative satisfaction. I wanted a different fate for everything she has done, but what occurred is more fitting for the series. The Battle of Pan was absolutely compelling. Once again, The Battle of Pan was not as epic as The Battle of Zathin Gulf, but when it comes to emotional value, it was on par. All the unfolding vicious betrayals, heart-wrenching tragedy, merciless menace, ruthless violence, and tempestuous disputes ended in Part Four. And you know what? I couldn’t be more satisfied by the breathtaking sequence of events than what is written here.
“What Dara needs now is not the Doubt-Ender, but the emptiness of doubtful potential. When the heart has been cleansed by doubt, every hope becomes a possibility. I want to tell a story that the people don’t expect, a story of empathy that encompasses the world.”
From my perspective and experience, the concluding chapters of Speaking Bones and the series were just too fitting to complain about. Calamity, cataclysm, war, and despair weren’t the only key driving factors of the climax sequence or the book. If that was the case, the ending of The Dandelion Dynasty wouldn’t be this special to me. As I said, portraying meticulously crafted balance in light, darkness, and the shade of grey between the two is one of the many talents Ken Liu accomplished marvelously. Hope, love, trust, friendship, peace, friendship, honor, art, and legacies, to mention a few, shine bright as well. Their beautiful existence, together with their dark counterparts, transformed the series and the ending of Speaking Bones into something irreplaceably special to me. And the finishing touch composed in Part V: Falling Leaves, the epilogue chapters of the novel, proceed to turn The Dandelion Dynasty into the best series of the year for me with even more gravitas than it already has.
“Beauty and art can persuade through the heart even when grand speeches from learned philosophers fail to sway the mind.”
Translation, languages, cultures, prejudice, ideals, engineering, legacies, mentorship, love, friendship, family, and more. There is too much. There is simply too much to capture in a review. I’ve written more or less ten thousand words (in total) of reviews for the series, and I still feel like I’ve captured only fragments of its brilliance. Speaking Bones is a masterpiece. A masterful culmination to The Dandelion Dynasty. Spanning generations of stories through hundreds of characters, I am in disbelief that I must say goodbye to the series now. For the past four months, I’ve been reading one book in the series per month, yet it feels like I’ve lived in Dara for half my lifetime. The Dandelion Dynasty is one of the very few series where each new volume I read improved the already exceptional (and beyond exceptional for The Wall of Storms) previous books. It is now proven that the reimagining of the Chu Han Contention in The Grace of Kings was successfully established as an ironclad basis for the rest of the series to explode with its meteoric impact and illuminating excellence.
“Every generation must compose its own destiny. There is no shirking of this duty. Teeth on the board.”
Once again, no existing review in the world could encompass the multitude of depths, knowledge, and emotions contained in each volume of The Dandelion Dynasty. I absorbed tomes of knowledge, a torrent of philosophies, exciting adventures, and unforgettable experiences permanently put into my mind and soul. Ken Liu always says a book isn’t completed when an author has finished writing the book. That’s halfway. A book or a series is completed only when the reader has finished reading them. And now, I’ve completed The Dandelion Dynasty. I didn’t just read about Dara and Ukyu and Gonde. I have lived them. How could I not? Ken Liu isn’t merely a storyteller with an intricately deep knowledge of this world. I see him as someone who has truly lived these stories. And he’s imparting the stories inside The Dandelion Dynasty to readers through his evocative and lyrical prose inside these books. Through his telling, my reading, and my re-remembering, I, too, have lived in The Islands of Dara and the Lands of Ukyu and Gonde. I have witnessed the tales of Kuni Garu, Mata Zyndu, Jia Matiza, Gin Mazoti, Zomi Kidosu, the children of Dandelion, and all the inhabitants from the Islands of Dara and The Land of Ukyu-and Gonde. I have heard stories of their gods. I have undoubtedly enjoyed my remarkable time and experience with the series. And it is your turn. It is your turn to complete your version of The Dandelion Dynasty. And yes, you SHOULD read The Dandelion Dynasty, a series that has catapulted its way up to becoming one of my favorite series of all time. You have my total gratitude for this masterpiece of a series, Ken Liu. Teeth on the board. I will strive to serve Mutage.
“Finally, thank you, readers, for coming on this journey with me. I’ve long held the belief that fiction is a co-creation between the author and the reader. While the author sets the scene and describes the action, introduces the characters and sets forth their lines, it’s the reader whose imagination brings it all to life. Just as the author must put something of themselves into the world to build it, the reader must also take a leap of trust to devote their attention wholly to the fantasy world, to live a life separate from reality… May you find a place in this fantasy world to live out an interesting life, a life with an empathy that encompasses the world and at the end of which you leave your teeth on the board, content that you served mutagé.”
The Dandelion Dynasty: 19.5/20 stars
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