The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu is many things: a retelling of the fall of the Qin dynasty and the Chu-Han Contention which followed (an incredibly exciting historical period often overshadowed by the Three Kingdoms period which, together with the Chu-Han Contention bookended the Han dynasty); a thoughtful exploration of morality and governance; and a ripping good secondary world fantasy with strange innovations (battle kites) and interesting characters.
I’m excited to see that this is book one of a planned series and am VERY curious as to whether Liu will follow the story of Kuni Garu or whether he’ll jump forward to some of the other notable periods of excitement that peppered this time period.
This story focuses mostly on the lives of two men born after the rise of the first imperial dynasty of the former Tiro states – a confederation of island nations centered around one very large island which share a common culture and history.
An emperor, Mapidéré overthrew the squabbling kingdoms and established a dynasty largely out of a sense of grievance at how his nation was treated compared to the others. He quickly begins pushing forward grand engineering schemes, standardizes the alphabet, weights and measures and then begins questing for immortality, ignoring how his empire is crumbling around him.
While on tour he falls ill and dies and his ministers conspire to have his heir killed and replaced with his younger son, a child who is easily distracted by the power hungry prime minister and the scheming chatelaine. Rebellions arise quickly, and two people: the capricious but sincere Kuni Garu and the noble absolutist Mata Zyndu come to the fore-front of the rebellion. As they fight against imperial authority they begin to see each other as brothers. But Zyndu is uncomfortable with Garu’s often dishonorable tactics, while Garu is disturbed by Zyndu’s brutality.
As the old empire crumbles, so to does their friendship.
Before I get any farther a warning, things will get a bit obliquely spoilery. So, if you know about the history of early Imperial China, or if you read the wikipedia links I posted at the top please consider yourself warned.
The Grace of Kings as historical fiction
It’s very easy to identify the historical counterparts to many of the key players in the novel very early on. Kuni Garu is identifiable as Liu Bang the moment he joins the rebellion, as one of the most enduring establishing myths of the Han is played out on the page. With Garu marked as a stand in for the Han founder, it becomes clear that Mata Zyndu is playing the role of Xiang Yu.
This lends a certain air of inevitability to the story. If Ken Liu had decided to unambiguously set the story in China as opposed to the Tiro States, if he’d removed the Crubens and the airships from the story (and all of these things are delightful, but the story could exist without them) this book would be a straight-up historical fiction, and an exceptional one. Garu as Liu Bang does an exemplary job bringing life to an incredibly complex figure: a commoner who became emperor, a man who reformed many of the excesses of his predecessors but who betrayed his friends, a king who is celebrated historically despite an acknowledged streak of low cunning that would have, in another time, made him not much more than a bandit. Likewise the tragedy of Xiang Yu, who was peerless in battle, but who always made the wrong decision off the field, is rendered beautifully through Zyndu.
Most of the key historical moments of the Chu-Han Contention are explored and dramatized throughout the story, while the blank spaces of historic lives: the loves, fears, hopes and frustrations are filled in with deft skill.
This makes it even more interesting that Liu chose to make a fantasy story instead of writing a history.
The Grace of Kings as morality tale
The issue of ethics is what divides Zyndu and Garu throughout the story. They have vastly divergent opinions on the right way to govern a state, the right way to act in a war, the right way to deal with enemies, the right way to reward followers, they even differ on what constitutes loyalty, and under what circumstances loyalty is owed.
Zyndu is generally brutal to prisoners, but late in the book, when a general with substantial personal valor opposes him, he treats the general and his followers with a surprising level of respect, because they faced him in a straightforward test of arms. Even though the general fell to him, he still respected him.
On the other hand, Zyndu cannot seem to forgive Garu for having succeeded in taking the imperial city without substantial loss of life or harm to civilians because he did so through trickery.
Kuni Garu spends the entire book worrying about whether or not he is being a good person as well as a good ruler. It’s made very clear that he wants to protect the populace. Garu is horrified by the human cost both of bad rulership and of war. It’s likewise very clear that he’s an ambitious man who wants to forward his own rise from street rat to emperor. In order to achieve his objective he’s willing to betray friends, use spies, lie, kill, and put his own family’s life on the line repeatedly.
Eventually the book decides that the ethics of a ruler must be, due to the very nature of ruling a state, different from the ethics of a single person. The book is ambivalent about whether Kuni Garu is really a good man. It is more clear that he is a good ruler; and suggests that in the span of history that is what will be remembered.
I suspect one of the reasons Liu chose to make this story into a fantasy was so that he could have the freedom to explore these issues without being entirely bound both to historical record and to the extensive body of commentary on the rule of the Han founder that has arisen over the last two thousand years.
The Grace of Kings as fantasy
But there’s another thing that sets The Grace of Kings apart from historical fiction. I’ve previously argued that Sanguo Yanyi was a fantasy novel, or at least the precursor to one, because of the introduction of supernatural elements such as the omens that foretell the death of Dian Wei and the deification of Guan Yu.
And this is another arena that Liu is having a lot of fun with. The pantheon of gods that preside over the Tiro states are a living, breathing and vibrant part of the world. They are constantly meddling with the lives of the mortals, and the book explores an important question: if there’s a god on every side of a conflict, do they cancel out?
Much like Kuni Garu’s goodness the answer is ambivalent. What is made clear is that humans will always be free to interpret design manifestations to benefit themselves, and that ultimately people are the guides of their own fates, even if they can be tempted or pushed by gods. Luan Zya’s divine book won’t tell him anything he doesn’t already know, and Mata Zyndu’s decision to sacrifice soldiers en-masse to one capricious god is something he must own, along with the consequences of that act.
The pantheon of gods that occupy this story are not the deities of Chinese myth. They aren’t the Buddhist kings of hell, nor do they bear much resemblance to the vast panoply of gods that occupy the Taoist cosmology. But they are also some of Liu’s best inventions. I enjoyed the battle kites, airships and mechanical crubens, but the story could have progressed just the same without them.
But without the gods of the Tiro states it would be a very different story, and the ideas they inject play beautifully off the exploration of ethics that occupies The Grace of Kings as a morality tale. By taking the bare events of the Chu-Han Contention and then weaving a story around them in a secondary fantasy world, Liu has managed to make a historical fiction into something greater than the sum of its parts.
Even though the fate of Mata Zyndu will be evident to an informed reader very early on, the question of how he gets there, within himself is open to question. As the story explores both the question of whether this noble, honorable, brutal, vulnerable man is good or not, and as it explores whether he is the captain of his fate or a victim of divine intervention it manages to make that doom into more than a clever retelling of history.
I rarely review a book if I don’t think it’s worth reading, and this is no exception. Though somewhat weighty at around 620 pages, this is definitely one worth reading.
Ken Liu has a deft command of language, history and the humanity that underpins all of his characters. I admit, I’m biased, secondary fantasy stories derived from Chinese sources are literally my favorite things to read, and they’re damn rare. But beyond my personal preferences, this is just a good book.
Furthermore, it’s a book that shows the value of fantasy. Because this didn’t have to be a fantasy, it’s so grounded in a deep appreciation of history that it could have easily been a historical fiction instead. But it is improved for being one.