Book Review: The Grace of Kings

Book Review: The Grace of Kings

I promised this review a few months ago, after reviewing Death's End (translated by Ken Liu), and I'm here to deliver on that promise. So without further ado, let's discuss The Grace of Kings. Hoo boy.

The Grace of Kings takes place in a Chinese-influenced fantasy land called Dara. It was previously several small kingdoms, but those kingdoms have been united under a single ambitious emperor. When that emperor dies, and his young son takes the throne, rebellion breaks out across the kingdom. The story primarily follows Kuni Garu, a former thief turned duke, and Mata Zyndu, the larger-than-life descendant of a line of storied generals, as they struggle to defeat the imperial forces and then clash over their opposite philosophies on the merits of nobility vs. peasantry, honor vs. cleverness, chrysanthemum vs. dandelion.

Where George R.R. Martin's ASOIAF books use the War of the Roses as inspiration, this series takes its inspiration from the Warring States Period of Chinese history. It's great to read a decidedly non-Western take on a fantasy world, and I love the Asian influences that thread Liu's world.

Liu also writes with gorgeous prose; the beauty of his translation work was what made me pick up this novel in the first place. It's not lost here, and Liu weaves the story with almost a fairytale quality to his telling. It's addictive to read, and it caused me to burn through this book incredibly fast.

Of course, some of that was due to the plot's pacing too. After the emperor dies, the plot just rockets along, with each chapter bringing a new battle for Mata or a new gambit from Kuni. It's honestly hard to put down. I will say that it feels too easy in places - Kuni in particular just skips along, and none of the challenges he faces actually feel challenging. (I never once felt like he was in actual danger). Someone inevitably solves it for him or presents him with the solution on a platter. Still, it's enjoyable to read the sequences and some of them are extremely memorable (the cruben ride and the "submarines" stand out).

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention how close the gods are to this word. I love a good set of Greek-style deities who interfere with the world and pick favorites, and Liu delivers. They bicker, they pick sides, they choose champions, they argue - for me, the short sequences with the gods are some of the book's highlights.

Liu also explores some really interesting themes in this piece. He beats the chrysanthemum/dandelion metaphor to death, but if you can skip past that, there's a lovely meditation on how war affects peasants the most heavily, while the end result (one king over another) generally affects them the least. Going back to the ASOIAF comparison, Martin touches on the same theme, but Liu devotes pages and pages to it. Martin's characters are largely all nobles. Liu's are decidedly not, and it's his history as a peasant that keeps Kuni grounded throughout the novel. Unlike the noble characters, including Mata, Kuni remembers the common folk.

That said, there are a few major flaws with this novel that prevented me from scoring it higher:

  1. The main characters are flat caricatures who have little to no personal growth. This is where ASOIAF scores much higher, because Martin's characters, for all their flaws, are real people. Kuni and Mata are philosophies personified and neither of them really changes over the course of the novel. Kuni does go from being a lazy shirker to a duke, but that's so early in the novel (and happens so quickly) that it hardly counts. Mata is even more rigid. If you asked me to describe their characters, I could maybe give you a few adjectives, but it'd be easier for me to tell you what they represent
  2. Building off of #1, there's a distinct lack of female characters until about 2/3 of the way through. We basically have to get along with just Jia, and even she's barely in it after the war begins in earnest. She gets pregnant and then sidelined. I'm a big fan of Gin Mazoti and I LOVE the sections around her later in the book, but why couldn't that have been threaded throughout? I've seen people defend Liu online since this is based on a real historical period where women weren't viewed as equals, but THIS IS A FANTASY. I'll take some of the inequality if you'll at least give me the character balance. Fortunately, given the way women figure in the last 1/3 of The Grace of Kings, I'm optimistic that it won't be an issue in sequel The Wall of Storms.
  3. The vignettes don't always work. Liu is an acknowledged master of the short story, so he peppers The Grace of Kings with small stories about characters that pop in and out, never staying very long. In places, these work incredibly well (I'm still heartbroken over Princess Kikomi), but in other places it detracts from the main thread of the story. Given that the story felt very "on-the-rails," so to speak, I would rather have seen Liu present actual challenges to Kuni than devote so much time to characters we're not really emotionally invested in.

But all that being said, this novel is well worth your time to read. It's an engaging story with good themes, beautiful prose, and a fully-realized, non-Western world. That's more than enough to earn a recommendation from me.

Grade: 4/5

Memorable Quote:

The gods may make one plain or pretty, stocky or thin, dull or clever, but it’s up to each of us to make a path for ourselves with the gifts we’re born with. A toad’s poison may take away the life of a tyrant and save a country, or it may become the murder weapon of a street gang. A peacock’s feather may end up adorning the helmet of a general, rallying the hearts of thousands, or it may end up in the hands of a servant fanning a foolish man who has inherited his wealth.
— The Grace of Kings, pg. 265
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