Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

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…

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WOLF HALL – Hilary Mantel (2009)

Wolf HallWolf Hall pops up in several lists of best historical fiction ever, but I got turned to it by Kim Stanley Robinson, who mentioned it in an interview as superb – together with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. It is the first book in a planned trilogy spanning the life of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII, and famous for having had a hand in the creation of the Anglican church, as well as in the downfall of both Thomas More and Anne Boleyn.

Wolf Hall sketches the events of Tudor England up until 1535. Sequel Bringing Up The Bodies was published in 2012 and won a Man Booker Prize too. The Mirror And The Light will cover the last 4 years of Cromwell’s life and has yet to be published.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s 650 pages. It should appeal to lots of fantasy fans too, as the character of Thomas Cromwell makes for quite a hero. He is the first low born man to rise to such high stature in the English realm, an exceptional figure. What makes him remarkable is his intelligence: he is one of the first English people to notice the importance of the emerging financial, monetary world; speaks numerous languages; has a keen sense of the ways of humans that help him in his power brokering. Plus, he is a bit of a vagabond: fleeing an abusive father, he was a mercenary for the French, travelled through the Low Countries, and ended up serving a Florentine banker. Stranger than fiction indeed, a character that could have been plucked out of whatever court fantasy. It is the other way around of course, as most subpar fantasy is just medieval history with dragons.

Obviously historians are still debating this and that, and writing about history willy-nilly leads to making choices. Hillary Mantel paints a Thomas Cromwell in a more or less sympathetic light – contrary to commonly held beliefs. He mourns his wife and daughters that die too early, he is a loyal servant to his first English patron, cardinal Wolsey, he struggles with memories of his father, feels for Thomas More’s family, etc. Reviewers writing that they didn’t get to see Cromwell’s emotions haven’t read carefully enough. The emotions are there, and they are one of the many strengths of the book.

Hilary Mantel knows she writes fiction, makes choices. She admits so on the final but one page, in a passage that is obviously meta, yet fits the story and the thoughts of her Cromwell well – all of the last 50 or so pages are truly exquisite, moving, final.

He knows different now. It’s the living that turn and chase the dead. The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths: we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives.

Still, even after 650 pages, Cromwell stays an elusive character. He is a mystery to himself, and multiple personas in one body – as we all are, I guess. It is to Mantel’s credit she has managed to paint somebody complex, without resorting to vagueness, without the painted figure out of focus, and at the same time without being too obvious about Cromwell’s complexity. The two following passages are among the very few that explicitly, overtly talk about his inner life.

He Thomas, also Tomos, Tommaso and Thomas Cromwell, withdraws his past selves into his present body and edges back to where he was before. His single shadow slides against the wall, a visitor not sure of his welcome. Which of these Thomases saw the blow coming?

&

I shall not indulge More, he thinks, or his family, in any illusion that they understand me. How could that be, when my workings are hidden from myself?

So yes, Wolf Hall is an ‘English’ book, subtle – as the cliché goes. Plus, occasionally brutal and upfront – the times were harsh, and Mantel doesn’t romanticize. Subtle, brutal, and funny too! Although it’s not a court drama, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell would be a good fantasy counterpart.

There’s so much to say about this book. In the remainder, I’ll focus on the conflict between two world views underlying the novel, and some remarks on Mantel’s style.

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