8.5/10 epic fantasy, 600 p.
Some stories feel like clay that you can shape around you, where you can picture yourself walking through a fantasy city and interacting with the characters. The Grace of Kings feels more like a marble statue. It is polished and beautiful, but rigid. You can admire it, its shapes and expression, but you are that one who has to adapt to it.
The Grace of Kings is a challenging book, but once you get the hang of it, it is hugely rewarding. It is epic fantasy, but not as we know it. Liu suffused his book with a feeling of Chinese mythology. The story takes place on a grand scale in both time and space, and faintly echoes the Chinese past of warring kingdoms and unification under an emperor, but the map and the names are different. This book can be read as a standalone, but officially, this book will be part of a larger series named the Dandelion Dynasty that chronicles the rise and fall of heroes and empires, and deals with stuff like war, rebellion, love and adventure.
The pages of Liu’s novel are dense with storytelling and characters. It is like he regards all the epic events from a distance in time, as if time itself has turned the story into a myth already, before Liu wrote it down. Liu’s prose style therefore reads a bit as if you are reading a work of mythology or a fictionalized history book instead of modern epic fantasy. The positive effect is that the pace of storytelling is very high and the scale of events is huge and truly epic and dramatic. It will give you that tingling down your spine. The negative effect is that it is hard to immerse yourself into the characters, because everything is regarded from a slight distance.
You could compare it to a Chinese version of Homer’s Iliad. There is actually more to this comparison than it seems. One character from The Grace of Kings (Mata) seems modeled on Achilles. His worldview is a bit alien to us in the modern west, but he has a riveting storyline. Another character (Kuni) is more like Odysseus. A wanderer and a clever adventurer. Indeed, in Ken Liu’s own words, the book is inspired in equal measure by classical Western epics like the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Aeneid, and Beowulf. So, this makes for a curious mixture of East and West with cultural foundations and literary traditions from both parts of the world.
Ken Liu’s prose is lyrical and quite beautiful, to make the slightly distant storytelling as accessible as could be. The dialogues are good so that we get an impression of the characters with minimal use of words, and his descriptions of events are poignant. His style is strangely minimalist and economical but beautiful at the same time. Characters show up for short scenes for some touching dialogue, and in the next scene they have travelled a hundred miles already or are in the next town, but Liu skipped the journey and lets the characters show up for another short burst of dialogue. The story skips over everything that is superfluous. He writes in short paragraphs and short chapters, as if each is a short, passionate outburst of storytelling.
The cast is huge and it takes some concentration to keep in your mind who’s who, because the names start to look like each other, especially after about a 150 pages when the scope of the story opens up a bit more and names start dropping. It is especially hard because we do not get to know the characters further than their own names and their general disposition. Clues to their emotions, like facial expressions, body language and general appearance are mostly absent.
Towards the end, some fatigue sets in and I keep putting the book away to read other stuff. I’m just not that involved in what’s happening.
It is like Ken Liu squeezed a ten-book series into a single volume. Especially with an intricate plot, you have to invest time and concentration to dig into the story, but the effect is like you are watching the unfolding of a great age in history of a whole continent.