THE GRACE OF KINGS – Ken Liu (2015)

the-grace-of-kingsThe Wall Of Storms, the sequel to this first book of The Dandelion Dynasty, will be published in a few weeks, early October 2016. I’d already ordered it, but after reading 200 pages of The Grace Of Kings, I cancelled my order. I also cancelled reading the rest of the 623 pages of Ken Liu’s full length debut. So, yes, this is my second DNF this year – the other’s here.

What a bummer. I looked forward to this book. I’m a huge fan of the short story collection Liu published earlier this year, and I liked his translation of The Three-Body Problem. It won the Locus First Novel, and there were a few positive reviews of bloggers whose opinion I respect.

Imagine my surprise with this book’s main problem: clunky, crummy prose, and dialogue that’s bloated & unrealistic – fantasy world or not.

“Young man,” she mumbled after the retreating figure of Kuni Garu, “you may act lazy and foolish, but I have seen your heart. A bright and tenacious flower will not bloom in obscurity.”

or

But the evidence seemed to some of the ministers and generals flimsy.

or

Also, his double pupils always made others look away.

There’s so many words in this book. Words words words. Also, if the editors would have taken a marker and highlighted all the redundant words and phrases, the book would have looked like a syllabus from an undergrad who can’t distinguish between what’s important and what’s not.

This book might be the best illustration I’ve come across of why an author should show and not tell – a critic’s cliché that I don’t like repeating in reviews myself, but really, this book forces my hand. Liu does lots of telling, let me tell you. But if I’m honest, the telling as such is not really the problem: it’s how it is being told, and that’s repetitive and slow paced. It’s boring telling, indeed. There are pages and pages of things explained that were already clear. Explained, repeated, and explained again. Because of all that, Liu’s tale failed to connect emotionally, and I hardly felt anything, as only saying something is “famous” or “skilled” doesn’t make it so. As a result, the action felt stale and lifeless. Strange, as Liu’s short fiction proves he can write compelling, even horrifying scenes, using poetic, precise prose. Yet his long form feels like amateur hour.


Saladin Ahmed, author of a pulp turd, calls this book “a much-needed breath of fresh air” for epic fantasy. Saga Press slapped it on the cover, but forgot The Grace Of Kings actually isn’t really fantasy. It’s a rehash of Chinese history. Ken Liu talked openly about this, and a quick glance at the Wikipedia page of the Chu-Han contention – the conflict 2 centuries BC that led to the birth of the Han dynasty – is revelatory. The two main characters, Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, are more or less Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. Here’s two Wiki quotes, that will be very familiar to people who’ve read the book…

Liu Bang was tasked with escorting a group of convicts to Mount Li to build Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum. When some prisoners escaped during the journey, Liu Bang feared for his life because allowing convicts to escape was a capital offence under Qin law. He eventually released the remaining prisoners and became a fugitive. Some of the convicts he released joined him of their own accord.

In legend, they encountered a gigantic white serpent which killed some people with its poisonous breath.

&

Xiang Yu had a double pupil in one of his eyes just like the mythical Emperor Shun and Duke Wen of Jin. He was thus seen as an extraordinary person because his unique double pupil was a mark of a king or sage in Chinese tradition. Xiang Yu was slightly taller than eight chi (approximately 1.85 metres, about 6′ 1″) and possessed unusual physical strength as he could lift a ding (an ancient Chinese vessel resembling a giant cauldron on tripods).

The gods hardly feature, and don’t really do anything. Even the few other speculative elements (double pupils, neat!) seem to be lifted from real life history. Maybe  there’s more epic fantasy stuff in the remaining 2/3rd of the book – but I doubt it, and other negative reviews seem to confirm my hunch.

For a breath of fresh air, there’s a surprising amount of cliché. There’s the rich girl that falls for the playful, poor rascal, the brash rascal bandit himself, the bandit party going to bars & whores, a family that needs its honor back, exotic fragrances (“jasmine, osmanthus, rose, sandalwood”), a counselor that plays a naive, young emperor, and that emperor echoing “let them eat cake” with the silkpunk version of those words: “Why do they insist on eating rice? Meat is so much better!”

I have to admit, dubbing this book ‘silkpunk’ was a brilliant marketing trick, but it doesn’t mean a lot, aside from the fact that characters’ names sound Chinese,  and that the existence of bamboo airships is mentioned.

Two other things that bugged me:

Inconsistencies. You cannot describe a character as not being “the sort to rush impulsively into danger” and just a few pages before that have the same character take on an assignment of which he knows there’s an extremely high chance it will get him (and his family) executed – just because he’s pretty sure he can talk himself out of the death penalty. Seems impulsive and dangerous to me.

Obviousness. The series is called The Dandelion Dynasty. The main conflict is between Kuni Gari and Mata Zyndu, two allies set on a collision course. Zyndu comes from a noble house and his family banner is the chrysanthemum. On page 55, this book’s herbalist says the following:

“(…) The fiery salamander weed, a good, hot spice for cold winter nights, grows better next to the snowdrop, know for its power to relieve fevers. Creation seems to favor making friends of those destined to be enemies.”

On the same page, after being asked what her favorite plant is by Kuni Gari – her lover – the herbalist says this:

“They’re all dear to me, but I admire the dandelion the most. It is hardy and determined, adaptable and practical. The flower looks like a small chrysanthemum, but it’s much more resourceful and far less delicate. Poets may compose odes about the chrysanthemum, but the dandelion leaves and flowers can fill your belly, (…) It is a versatile and useful plant people can rely on.” “And it’s playful and fun.” (…) “The chrysanthemum is a noble flower.” “That’s true. It’s the last flower to bloom in autumn, defiant against winter. (…) But it is not a flower that endears.”

Our two heroes are like the two flowers! Clever! Poetic! Liu is so fond of his central metaphor that he keeps on repeating references to both flowers ad nauseam. What did the editors even think of the following simile?

The sword spun in front of him easily, reflecting light like a blossoming chrysanthemum, and he felt its chill wind on his face.

A spinning metal sword reflects light like a flower? I rest my case. Maybe I should have pushed on, but I was bored & annoyed, so I dropped out – like any decent rascal would do.

 


Next up: Ken Liu’s translation of Cixin Liu’s Death’s End. I’ve already read the opening chapter, and it’s brilliant. Whew!

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16 responses to “THE GRACE OF KINGS – Ken Liu (2015)

  1. Interesting reaction you have to this book. I understand the criticism and I had some problems too in getting through this book. Nevertheless, overall I liked it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! If I’d finished it fully, I might be overal positive about the story too – the story, not the prose. I can see why people like this, but if a book fails to engage me after 200 pages, it’s hard to keep on pushing. I really wish an editor had cut back on the verbosity – if it was scaled back 200 pages, it could have been smooth sailing.

      I’m not sure about characters btw, they still felt paper thin after 200 pages, but as I didn’t finish it, I refrained from commenting on that.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting, I thought that one of the things Cixin and Ken have in common is that they both do a fair bit of telling in their novels.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, Cixin does lots of telling too, yet I think he feels less the need to explain the obvious. But you are right, it’s not telling per se I have problems with, but the way Ken Liu does it in this book… I should have been more clear in the review.

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      • Having progressed halfway through Death’s End, it really is the pacing of Ken Liu’s telling I have trouble with. There’s often more happening and more information in 1 page of Death’s End than there is in 2 or 3 entire chapters of The Grace Of Kings – which, granted, has generally quite short chapters.

        Like

    • I decided to rewrite the section, as you were fully right. Thanks for being critical!

      Like

  3. Oh dear. That takes this book off my reading list.

    Have you read Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky yet? I think you’d like it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No I haven’t yet, but it’s on my TBR. Thanks for the recommendation!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Pleasure! I’m sure you’ll enjoy it – I haven’t enjoyed a book as much as I did “Children of Time” since reading “Aurora”. They’re quite similar in a few regards, but “Children of Time” was one of the most unique books I’ve ever read. (I’m trying to get as many people to read it as possible.)

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved this book, it was one of my favorites of last year. That said, I actually understand where you’re coming from on a lot of your negative points, because I mean, there was a reason why this book took me such an inordinately long time to read. The prose was terribly difficult to get used to, though I have to say, once I got into the rhythm, things definitely got easier from there.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love your snark. Your non-snark is pretty darn good, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I did start this book a few months ago but it felt indeed a bit on the slow and clunky side – back then I decided to let it rest for a while, waiting for a better time, one when my patience level was a bit higher and I could wade through the sheer amount of information with more ease. Now I’m not so certain…
    But I will have to try again to see if it was only a momentary feeling or if this author’s prose is indeed too “rich” for my tastes.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll look forward to your review!

      It surprises a bit me that nearly all the comments here by people who’ve read or started the book thus far talk about the book being hard to get into. I thought that maybe I had been a bit too critical, but that’s clearly not the entire story.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Sometimes, having to work hard to get into a story can be a rewarding experience, but I also think that such work requires the right moment and the right amount of mental energies, and both of them are not always readily available. That said, when a book does not “speak” to me, I always give up, looking for greener pastures…

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