An Epic of Vignettes
When I heard Ken Liu was finally doing a novel, and epic fantasy no less, I could hardly contain myself. Imaginative as he is, and with his feet in two cultures and narrative voices, there was no doubt the celebrated short story writer would find a fresh take on the genre.
And he does—and not just in plot or setting. For better or worse, The Grace of Kings upends epic fantasy expectations with pacing and tone too—the book reads more like a collection of fables, or a (recorded) oral history, than a typical novel. Light-hearted, spanning many years, featuring characters a little too extreme to be believed, one almost feels the tale comes with the mythological veneer of a second-or third-hand telling, something passed down rather than spun fresh from the author’s brain.
The pacing and scope stand out most in this book. Where we usually expect just one beginning, middle and end, and the deep insight into character that only fiction offers, Liu gives us many characters in light detail, and a story that spans many years and climaxes of action. Economy of words shouldn’t be surprising from an author of so many (wonderful) short stories—it’s second nature to such authors (see Mary Robinette Kowal). But Liu declines the opportunity of a longer word count to get deeper into his character’s heads, opting instead for a sort of saga of sketches, an epic of vignettes that together form a broader tale than we expect from a single novel (really, the characters and plots would be fodder for a trilogy from most authors).
That’s not to say Liu’s debut novel is without depth. Though the characters are sketched rather than illustrated in great detail, still we care for them and are curious for their fates. The book also explores issues of ethics, politics and violence, but with its decades-long scope I began to feel that the same points were being made again and again, a pattern that made the ending unsurprising (if still satisfying). Less satisfying were the moments of pathos—with Liu’s lighthearted tone and the sketchy quality of his characters, it was hard to get very emotionally invested in what would happen.
Much of Liu’s originality is a success—the unique technology*, the poetic imagery, the interesting backstories and clever ways his main characters solve their problems all feel unique and enjoyable. The philosophy and values of his people also feel fresh: where many fantasy authors, despite writing pre-industrial cultures, have their character’s basic values be capitalist, the people in Grace of Kings worry primarily about their reputation and legacy, ringing true to a medieval timocratic society in a way few authors match**.
Best of all, nestled inside much innovation is a familiar heart of Tolkienesque themes: the intoxicating quality of power, the surprising Frodo character able to resist its power, and humility as the saving grace of the world.
In all, Grace of Kings is a fun read and something different for those of us still in love with epic fantasy even as we dread its tropes. While Liu may not touch the deepest realms of the human heart, still he gives them a good tickle, and like a good fable leaves us feeling better for the process.
*Yes, this SPOILER is another pre-steampunk fantasy featuring airships—but Liu has perhaps the most plausible explanation for how his float (or tied with Megan O’Keefe’s Steal the Sky).
**Dedicated readers will know I’m a sucker for economic accuracy. See also The Traitor Baru Cormorant