The 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.
What a bummer. I looked forward to this book. It won the Locus First Novel, and the short story collection Liu published earlier this year is top shelf, as is his translation of The Three-Body Problem.
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.”
But the evidence seemed to some of the ministers and generals flimsy.
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, but really, this book forces my hand. Liu does lots of telling, let me tell you. But if I’m more precise, 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. 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, as only saying something is “famous” or “skilled” doesn’t make me feel that. As a result, the action seemed stale and lifeless.
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 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!”
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 the existence of bamboo airships is mentioned. Bamboo – how’s that for a Chinese cliché?
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!