The Grace of Kings (The Dandelion Dynasty #1) by Ken Liu
Published: Simon & Schuster (Apr 7, 2015)
Original Post: Edge, Goodreads (Mar 10, 2017)
(4 / 5)
The struggle between kings and their governed takes center stage in Ken Liu’s fantasy epic, The Grace of Kings. The novel features a tense political atmosphere with ever-shifting notions of right and wrong. Unlike other fantasy novels, Grace is inspired by the Far East instead of medieval Europe. In addition to a unique setting, Grace is an epic tale with diverse characters.
The Islands of Dara were once six fractured-but-equal kingdoms known as The Tiro States. Five of the states – Cocru, Faça, Gan, Haan, Rima, and Amu – were conquered by the sixth and most distant state, Xana. Similar to the real Warring States Period of China – the Qin clan in seeking dominance over eight kingdoms – Xana sought to unify the land under one ideal. Just as Qin pushed legalism upon its conquered states, Xana advocated the emperor’s laws and view of modernity.
(Click image to enlarge map by Robert Lazzaretti)
Ruthless imperialism in place of a feudal system of equals. Through the blood and tears of its people, Xana standardized language and strengthened interstate commerce. Progress. Although the Tiro States were feudal, they were not savage and had their own strengths and cultures. Haan – a kingdom where scholarship reigned – had a critical thinking society and possessed the finest academies in all of Dara. The woodlands of Rima were known for their miners and skill with smithing. But when one time period’s achievements become antiquities of a bygone era, they were discarded to heed the call to change.
Did the ends justify the means?
How does a monarchy promote progress without sacrificing its principles?
These questions are at the heart of the story in The Grace of Kings.
“Authority is a delicate thing, and it must be carefully cultivated by proper ritual and action from the governing and the governed alike.”
In many ways, The Grace of Kings is extremely Homeric and reads like Greek mythology. The eight Gods of Dara play a large role in the affairs of men. The game of kings and their kingdoms is mimicked in the dealings of their respective deities. As in Chinese mythologies, the Gods themselves are represented by the geography and environment of Dara: their emotions influence the world itself. Each kingdom has its own mythos and each mythos is part of a greater tapestry.
The kingdoms of Dara also have many interesting inventions! Haan has new forms of mechanical calculators instead of Abacuses, Xana has rideable battle kites and silken Airships for war, and Amu has bamboo toy copters that fly on their own (that’s probably not their crowning achievement but it was to this reviewer!). Xana’s great civil works of engineering are exceptionally noteworthy. An underground city-mausoleum akin to Qin Shi Huang’s eternal resting place as well as city maintenance systems are impressive. Without giving too much away: the fantasy novel’s Eastern influences make the Islands of Dara unique and refreshing.
Yet, for all its deep backstory and world building, the novel’s greatest strength is the story between its two protagonists.
“Mata is the one who thinks the past was perfect, but I think we must perfect the present for the future…”
The friends, Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, couldn’t be more dissimilar. One is a free-spirited gangster, while the other is a displaced noble warrior, hailing from a long line of heroes. When forced to lead two separate rebel armies against the empire, their loyalty to each other is called into question. Both have complex motivations for wanting to overthrow the Xana Empire and both have very different values and leadership styles. Can the two find a middle ground for the good of Dara?
[P]erhaps just as the tax code was a microcosm of all the policies that animated an empire, what he knew of administering the taxes was a microcosm of statecraft.
The secondary characters in Grace are well crafted and numerous. Kindo Marana is a tax administrator-turned military leader. Since a large part of maintaining armies is paying for them, tax collection is a big deal for the Empire. Wrestling with a bloated empire and unfathomably large army, Marana comes up with a way to save the army by taking what empires have a lot of and turning them into assets. Luan Zya, a mysterious scholar and former student of divination, uses his vast wisdom to aid Kuni in navigating a dangerous sea of political intrigue.
Fantasy fans rest assured: the Islands of Dara have plenty of magic and mystery. While deeply rooted in the sciences, unique blends of alchemy and herbalism are leveraged to perform seemingly otherworldly feats. The ever-present Gods of Dara also contribute to the story’s appeal. While these aspects are ancillary to the story of Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, they’re original and well constructed.
Despite the strong character-centric story in The Grace of Kings, the novel also has some weaknesses. Some chapters have leaps in time that advance the plot. During these times, characters and their personalities change. While the changes are reasonable and summarily explained, it may leave the reader disappointed in some of their favorite characters.
Fair warning: there’s plenty of depravity and violence in The Grace of Kings. While Dara is extremely interesting it isn’t particularly friendly. Bad things happen more frequently than good things and readers won’t always like what they read. Unlike other fantasy tales that omit gender relations, the men of Dara treat women and children differently than they treat themselves (but not always poorly). It isn’t a modern view and it isn’t meant to be. The novel attempts to account for all people in a fantasy kingdom, not just a few sword-wielding men.
Lastly, The Grace of Kings is very well written. It has many descriptive, symbols, metaphors, poems, and songs. The battle scenes were action packed. The story’s scope is tight and well executed. The pacing is just right, the story never slows down too much. Unfortunately to quote the novel any more would be to give away too much of the story. Suffice it to say that the high page count is worth it!
While Dara isn’t all pretty dandelions and chrysanthemums, I’d recommend The Grace of Kings to anyone interested in epic fantasy. I’m curious to see where The Dandelion Dynasty series goes from here. For great characters and a well-crafted world, Grace of Kings receives a 4/5.