Book Review: The Wall of Storms
This week, we're revisiting the islands of Dara and Ken Liu's Dandelion Dynasty series, because I finally tracked down a copy of The Wall of Storms.
The Wall of Storms takes place several years after The Grace of Kings. Kuni has been on the throne as Emperor Ragin for several years, implementing changes to Dara's society. His court continues to speculate on which of his two sons he will name as his heir. Then invaders called the Lyucu show up, hellbent on taking the islands of Dara for themselves. The heroes of Dara must find a way to push the invaders back or lose everything they've built.
First of all, I'd like to note that Liu's prose is as lush and gorgeous as ever. His books are a joy to read simply for the beauty of the language, and he hasn't lost the ability to wield words more deftly than Botticelli with a paintbrush. Unlike The Grace of Kings, The Wall of Storms is less vignette-focused. There are a few large flashbacks, some of which run on over-long, but on the whole this book felt like a more cohesive story than The Grace of Kings did.
Now let me get my complaints quickly out of the way. The entire first half of the book is devoted to court politics, and there's not really a clear goal or plot, especially when we know from the back cover that the big "inciting incident," so to speak, is the arrival of the Lyucu. The novel is a hair over 800 pages long, yet it takes until about page 400 for the Lyucu to show up. It very much feels as if the book is holding its breath for 400 pages as a result, which makes the early sections drag. I would have appreciated a faster move into the conflict.
The other thing that struck me as odd was Jia. I really enjoyed Jia in The Grace of Kings, and I remember lamenting how she was sidelined for much of the book. She struck me as competent and practical, a nice contrast to Kuni, but she operated within a set of principles. While I appreciate her greater role in the sequel, Wall of Storms Jia doesn't seem to resemble Grace of Kings Jia at all. In this book, Jia is almost a villain, ruthlessly politicking in the name of better positioning her son. She claims it's all for the greater good, but it's hard to see how she could think that of some of her actions, especially when they result in large numbers of deaths. In fact, she very nearly destroys Dara's chances of winning against the Lyucu by undermining and imprisoning Gin Mazoti.
Some of that may simply come from a problem I noted in my previous review: that the characters in The Grace of Kings were fairly one-dimensional. Liu does a better job of opening them up here and presenting a more nuanced view of his cast.
Speaking of cast, let's talk about the much-improved focus on female characters. While there were hardly any in The Grace of Kings, The Wall of Storms has several, and the story hones in tightly on them. I've already talked about Jia's intense political ambitions in the first half, and Gin makes a spectacular return. But we've also got Thera, Kuni's daughter and the only one of his children to combine his intelligence with his charisma. There's Zomi Kidosu, Luan Zya's student and a great scholar in the making. And there's Tanvanaki, the daughter of the Lyucu king and a fearsome warrior in her own right. The vast majority of the book's action turns on these five women, and I am here for it. (Let alone the fact that Kuni defy convention and make Thera his heir - clearly the best decision).
As a side note to the cast, I'd like to mention how much I appreciate Liu including tender portrayals of homosexual relationships. It's extremely uncommon in epic fantasies to see these relationships included, and even less so to see homosexual relationships accepted by the rest of the characters. These quiet moments were some of the book's most touching.
Circling away from that, Liu is not messing around here. Unlike The Grace of Kings, where there were few big deaths and those that occurred were usually "bad guys," several named characters (including some you may be attached to, as I was) die to defend Dara from the Lyucu.
Liu layers some intense battles and clever tech work over this; the setpieces in The Wall of Storms are more expansive, more epic and far more memorable than those in The Grace of Kings (other than, perhaps, the cruben ride). The "silkpunk" aspects of the story are also highlighted here, culminating a seriously cool aerial battle toward the novel's end.
Overall, I enjoyed this one more than The Grace of Kings. Liu has addressed the flaws of the first book, and I'm willing to forgive the overlong first half (which is still beautifully written) for the incredible second half.