Ken Liu’s debut fantasy novel, The Grace of Kings, is something akin to that of a diamond in the rough. Or a dandelion not yet fully bloomed. It’s a beautiful piece about two unlikely friends and their roles in the shaping of history and kingdoms. It’s a book about how enemies form out of miscommunication and jealousy, and how love and ideals shape the person you become.
Much of the book is a wonder to behold. Although not taken directly from any one person or event, the Grace of Kings takes a wonderful amount of inspiration from Chinese legends, folk tales, and history. Much of the worldbuilding seems to be Chinese in theory, aside from some of the more steampunk elements introduced. Parallels can be made to suggest the ancient scholar Kon Fiji shares obvious parallels with Confucius and so on. One of the strongest aspects of the writing is its relation to ancient proverbs, as much of the book is written to reflect ancient sentence structures, and methods of recording history. This unfortunately took me out of the story often, particularly closer to the beginning. It took away from much of the levity the individual characters displayed, making particularly Kuni Garu often seem unrealistic.
But as the book’s primary protagonist, Kuni Garu is an interesting character to follow. He starts out as nothing but a deadbeat gangster, drinking and laughing his days away. But then he falls in love, learns to work, and subsequently finds himself in increasingly wilder positions of power, until one day he is one of the leading figures in the world. By contrast, a noble boy Mata Zyndu works his way up the ranks with his force of strength and military prowess. Although their ideals and principles clearly differ in almost every respect, you learn to like them equally, even despite some of the things they both become capable of.
That said, a lot of the novel seems to me like odd padding. And most of this padding, when eventually paid off near the end, doesn’t altogether feel worthwhile. Before I reached the halfway point, there was never a moment I felt “I need to find out what happens next,” besides the obvious urge to finish so that I could review it. But it does pick up near the end, and quite heavily.
One thing I learned to love about the novel was the ever increasing tenacity of the pantheon of gods who seem fit to interfere in the lives of the men and women of the world. But they all seem to have their own motives, and many of those motives never really become clear. This gives the reader the understanding that mortals don’t fully grasp their intent, which by the end is clear that they really don’t.
The characters in the story are all quite strong in their own right. A handful of very capable women throughout the novel help create a well rounded world. And each person in the novel eventually succumbs to flaws and imperfections within their characters, making them realistic. Sometimes though, the characters in the novel stick too firmly in their ideals so as to make them seem extremely one-dimensional, and their reactions to situations become far too easy to predict. As a whole the book is a wonderful, elegant thing, full of love, loss, and hope. I recommend it to just about anyone looking for an inspiring read.
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