Review: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu – Making battle kites cool

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.

Final Thought

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.

Haxan – Weird(ish) West

There’s a lot of cross-pollination between Science Fiction and Western. Both are genres about boundaries: the border between settled and wild, the boundary between right and wrong action, the boundaries between nations (as the United States pushed aggressively westward, absorbing New France, pushing Mexico south and driving the indigenous nations before them in one of the most infamous, and and infamously un-discussed, genocides of human history).

The mythology that sprang up around the great colonial push westward is thus one about these boundary conditions, how boundaries change and how boundaries change people. In addition, the characters in westerns are frontierspeople, and their life is defined by exiting the familiar and colonizing the unknown.

Science Fiction deals with much of the same psychic content. Especially in the case of space exploration fiction, but also in stories like Starfish, or even Ancillary Justice characters find themselves thrust out of the familiar (be that the comfort of being one body of many networked to an AI, their remembered time or dry land) and sent to colonize the unfamiliar (a deep sea rift, the future, an existence as an individual) knowing  that they can never return unchanged.

Justice of Toren / Breq can never go back to being a vast AI ship mind. Seivarden cannot return to her past. Lenie Clarke does return to dry land, but what comes back isn’t really what went in. And like the history from which the western genre sprang, these colonizations of the wild are often highly destructive, especially to the people or creatures who already lived in those places.

With so much shared conceptual space, it’s not surprising that weird west is a thing that exists. And I’ve got to say, it’s one of those genres I really should read more often than I do. I like weird west. I even liked Wild Wild West – giant steampunk spider and all. It’s not a short hop from science fiction to weird, and it takes an even lighter touch to tint the already mythological ground of the wild west with a weird brush.

But a lot of weird west jumps up and down on its weirdness: spell slinging cowboys, monsters, demons, zombies, giant robot spiders whatever, just throw it all at the wall and sees what sticks.

This can be very entertaining. But it’s not very subtle.

Haxan is a subtle book.

It’s fully possible to read the book without any supernatural or unnatural context at all. The things that happen in the story are grounded in the grit and mythological realism of the western genre so thoroughly that there’s no actual need to say, “It’s western, BUT…”

However you can also read Haxan as a story about an immortal warrior, summoned from somewhere nameless to fight for order in a town that might exist at the behest of a psychic settler from a vastly distant elsewhere.

And that reading would be just as valid as the gritty mythological realist one. This is a story that assumes a Navajo understanding of the spirit world is at least equally valid to a surface reading. This is a story that takes the romantic ideal of the quickdraw gunslinger and simultaneously roots it in the dust and death of all-to-real gun violence while simultaneously cranking the mythic resonance of the act of the duel to 11.

This is a story where coyotes encroach on a town because the land is dry and they’re thirsty. But also because the town must be isolated so that its lone guardian can stand against What Must Be Faced.

Hoover has a beautiful talent for description, and the town of Haxan and surrounds is powerfully realized. But it’s not just the ability to see, taste and smell the world that gives this book power, it’s the author’s ability to infuse those descriptions with a sense of doom in the old Scandinavian sense of the word.

Haxan is the first western I’ve read in a very long time, and it hit just the right note of weirdness without going all to tentacles and mechanical spiders. And if this is indicative of the state of the genre, perhaps I should read more.

Review – Silence by Michelle Sagara


Ok, so it’s a new adult novel.

— Alright, I like those.

An urban fantasy.

— Cool.

Set in Toronto.

— Good

On the topic of how the support of a strong community can help somebody cope with grief.

— Nice, I like it.

And it’s all about psychopomps and necromancers.

— Shut up and take my money.

Silence is the first book in the Queen of the Dead series by Michelle Sagra. I’ll be honest, I do enjoy reviewing books by local authors, because I like reading books by local authors, and so when I recently came across Sagara’s first book I jumped at the opportunity much faster than some much more well known new adult books that I’ve not gotten around to.

The fact that this book was not a dystopia also played into my interest in reading it. As much as I like dystopian fiction (I do read a fair bit of the stuff) it is nice to see a book that took a different approach.

Now for the most part I want to talk about what’s good with this book, because it’s mostly very good. I do have one tiny little complaint though, so I want to get that out of the way up front.

The middle of the book has a small problem: the protagonist is largely in the dark, and a character shows up who knows precisely what’s going on. But he straight up refuses to provide any exposition for several chapters, with repeated conversations where the protagonist says, “tell me what’s going on, because this situation makes very little sense,” and him replying, “no,” or alternatively finding a fortuitous distraction to avoid having to disclose any exposition.

This carries on somewhat too long, and by the time the weirdness around the edges of the story boil over to the point that OTHER characters start providing the exposition that Mr. Mysterious straight up refuses to, I kind of wanted to punch him. A lot. And he’s supposed to be one of the good guys.

But that’s a moderately minor quibble, and with a good setup, a solid third act and, Mr. Mysterious aside, an exceptional cast, I’d definitely recommend this to anybody interested in new adult fantasy fiction.

So let’s talk about why then.

Finally a book that isn’t about how awful cliques are

A common feature of a lot of new adult books lately seems to be clique as source of tension. Whether it’s the Cullens against the other vampires in Twilight, the various factions of Divergent or the districts of the Hunger Games, social organizations of more than three people almost always seem to become engines driving conflict. Of course, considering the preponderance of love triangles in new adult fiction, even social groupings of three people can become engines of conflict, but that’s another issue altogether.

Now high school wasn’t wonderful for me. I was a weird kid. I read a lot, was wordy, played with religions the way other kids played with musical identities.

At school I gravitated in loops and whorls toward a small collection of drama, music and English kids who became the core circle of friends I had within school. There was occasionally tension between some of our number, but in general having people to sit with at lunch, to hang with on slack periods and to drink with after grad dance was how I coped with a lot of the pain that comes with being a weird kid.

They were, effectively, a clique. And they were, in retrospect, awesome. (Kaitlyn, Jeremy, Scott, Jim, Farah, Danny, Colin, and the rest, you guys rock. Even those of you I haven’t seen in over a decade.)

Furthermore, the conflict I had in high school wasn’t some grand battle between cliques, because these social circles were generally loose, and even if some kids in one circle enjoyed tormenting the weird kid, that didn’t mean that their friends even cared enough to do likewise.

In Silence, the protagonist is, in a special kind of way, saved by her clique. She has a loose circle of friends who have woven together through the organic connections that tie one person to another and even when they’re very different, they’re there for her.

This is reflected in the story in two ways: first, in the willingness of her friends to believe and support her when her life starts getting strange; second, by establishing what differentiates herself from other people with necromantic ability. Because necromancers are usually disaffected loners, antisocial and distant from human connection. And Emma isn’t like that. She has friends who care about her and who she cares about. And those human connections are what allow her to come to terms with her new capabilities without losing touch with her fundamental humanity.

So we have a story that celebrates friendship among teenagers, and shows how the ties we form in our formative years can help us to become better people. I find this a wonderful antidote to the pseudo-tribalism of so many other new adult entries.

There’s no love triangle

Emma’s boyfriend dies prior to the opening of the novel, and she’s grieving as the story begins. She’s certainly not looking for a new love. Sagara handles this with deftness and humour when Mr. Mysterious shows up and starts acting interested in Emma (because of her developing powers).

Her friends warn him off, let him know she’s not interested. And he’s like “oh god no, I am not trying to hook up with her,” and that’s the end of that.

Seriously, not every relationship has to be about romantic love. By deliberately, and pointedly, sidelining any romantic subplot right out of the gate, Sagara clears the stage to tell a story that’s instead all about the importance of friendship, and the bonds of family.

The magic is cool

It’s pretty much obvious from the moment that Emma hears the word “necromancer” that she’s going to end up a psychopomp. Where necromancers treat the dead as metaphysical batteries to fuel their honestly frightening array of powers, she treats the dead as people, and shows the same compassion to them that her own friends have to her in the wake of her own grief at the loss of her father and boyfriend in quick succession.

So we’ve got baddies with interesting powers, a protagonist who has a well-defined character-driven reason to use those powers differently and a strong connection between the theme of the story and the nature of the magic inserted into the world.

Simply put, it’s very well done.

If you like new adult urban fantasy and if the idea of a story that centers around the bonds that form within families and friends, about how we’re strengthened by bringing people close, by compassion given and received, this is a book you will enjoy. Minor quibbles regarding pace in the second act aside, it’s a strong series start, and I’m looking forward to reading more books with this delightful group of friends.

Review: The Three Body Problem

The-Three-Body-Problem-Liu-CixinIf you read one Science Fiction book this year, make it the Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu. It is the first book in the Three Body trilogy, and an exceptional starting point for people interested in reading Chinese genre translations.

I really want to get into a thorough exploration of the work, but that’s going to tread into some spoilery territory, so what I’ll do is start with a brief review up top and then include the longer spoiler review at the bottom. I’ll provide ample warning, so if you haven’t read the Three Body Problem and want to be surprised you’ll get plenty of warning.

The non-spoiler review

The Three Body Problem starts with a gut-punch and never lets up from there. And that’s part of what makes this book so exceptional. Chinese fiction, especially, has a different pace and structure from western fiction. As a result, translations of Chinese novels often have issues with pace.

This is not the case here. Ken Liu has tread a very masterful line between preserving the cadence of speech and the structure of the story on one hand, while providing a book that flows correctly in English. If you’re familiar with works translated from Chinese it will still feel like a translation – but it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen, easily on a par with the Shapiro translation of Outlaw of the Marsh, which has long been my gold standard. In fact, Liu’s translation likely exceeds even that one.

The impeccably paced story starts in the throes of one of the most tumultuous periods of the Cultural Revolution, before jumping to the near future. It introduces us to a world populated by scientists an soldiers, plutocrats and police. One scientist, Wang Miao, is recruited to investigate an unusual rash of suicides among theoretical physicists. The extra-governmental cabal that recruits him hints darkly that these deaths are part of an ongoing secret war.

As Wang digs deeper into the mystery his whole world begins to fall apart. And then there is that tantalizing video game…

Themes

Exploring topics including cycles of history, chaos and order, the lasting impact of violence on the psyche of survivors, string theory and first contact, it would be an understatement to say that the Three Body Problem is an ambitious book. However it is not a book in which ambition outstrips ability, and Liu Cixin manages to keep several thematic balls in the air with apparent ease, deftly tying the suggestion  that, “other than Stable Eras, all times are Chaotic Eras,” both to mathematical problems in chaotic systems and to politics.

Madeline Ashby recently discussed how she would like to do away with the idea that there is a binary division between hard and soft SF. I think The Three Body Problem provides a valuable example for why she’s right. This story is a scientifically rigorous story about scientists. And that’s effectively the operating definition for the hardest of the hard SF. And yet this is also a story which is entirely driven by the internal lives of its protagonists (and antagonists), and one which is much more interested in the impact of a cultural movement on the world than the direct impact on technology. These are both hallmarks of soft SF. And being constrained by neither of these binary positions it’s a better novel.

Characters

A few characters stand out: Wang Miao is an interesting protagonist – at times sharp witted and incisive, at other times retreating and confused. We’re invited to empathize with his sense of awe with the circumstances he’s thrust into, his vulnerability in the face of something much bigger than himself, while still being able to understand why he is the central figure for much of the story.

Ye Wenjie is another example of a beautifully complex character. Sometimes a kindly grandmother, other times a stubborn intellectual, always somebody struggling with the remnants of post-traumatic stress that was never allowed to heal, she is the thread that connects the disparate times and themes of the book most closely and is wonderfully rendered.

Shi (Da Shi) Qiang would have been the hero of a lesser work. This morally suspect disgraced soldier and failing cop is a man whose main failing seems to be a total inability to keep his mouth shut. And yet his bluff charm, easy humour and impish ingenuity make him lovable, even when it becomes clear he’s pretty much a total psychopath. Positioning him as a foil to the cerebral Wang Miao helps to establish this story as happening in the world – and gives the story enough dirt under its nails to remove it from what might otherwise seem an ivory tower parlour mystery.

This is about all I can say without venturing into spoiler territory.

So be forewarned.

If you haven’t read the book and want to avoid spoilers turn back now.

The spoiler review

Chaotic systems and cyclical systems

Compare the Trisolarian statement that, “other than Stable Eras, all times are Chaotic Eras” with the thesis of the first Chinese novel, “a kingdom long united must divide, a kingdom long divided must unite,” and we can see a through-line in the idea of history as a cyclical process.

And yet, where Luo Guanzhong saw destiny and inevitability, Liu Cixin instead invites chaos and unpredictability. While it is true that history cycles between periods of relative stability and harmony, and periods of conflict, he proposes, we cannot know when such a period will end, or even the form the conflict will take.

The factional divides within the ETO mirror the previous factional divides in the Red Guard so closely. Both are born of idealism. Both invite the disaffected. Both fall first into fanaticism and then into nihilism and both are ultimately most vulnerable to internal divisions brought about by their own fanaticism.

What lends an air of cyclicality to this is the way in which Ye Wenjie is so effectively demonstrated as a victim of the Cultural Revolution. She watches her father be murdered for refusing to compromise his principles. She watches her mother morph into something she can barely recognize in order to survive. This is a relationship she is never able (or even particularly motivated) to recover. She learns second-hand of her sister’s death but we, as the audience, are given the opportunity to witness this otherwise disconnected event in almost lurid detail: the passion of the believer and the ultimate futility of her death presented in language more poetic than the rest of the book.

She suffers betrayal at the hands of a would-be friend because he is in a position to avoid punishment for daring to have a differing opinion by casting the blame on her. Her refuge is effective a prison overseen by the military – and by the time she arrives there, almost dead, she is more than willing to sign away any vestige of freedom in exchange for nothing more than security.

And so her decision that humanity is incapable of governing itself, and the extreme action she takes to ensure that the Trisolarians are able to discover the location of the earth are understandable as a person in the depths of powerful post-traumatic stress. The world stabilizes around her, but she doesn’t even notice because she’s so wrapped in her own pain.

And yet, the organization that grows out of her actions, the one she becomes the titular commander of (even if not so much in actual function) rapidly falls into the same factional in-fighting and extremism that informed the cultural revolution.

Out of her desire to save humanity from the destruction of its own Chaotic Eras, she sows the seeds for the collapse of the next Stable Era.

Wang Miao, on the other hand, is very much a product of stable times. When we first meet him, he tells a gang of police and generals to get lost, secure that his position of relative wealth and prestige is sufficient to protect him. And it works – they have to plead with him to come to a meeting with them. They can’t just compel cooperation from Wang like previous government forces did from Ye. Furthermore, though he might have been old enough to remember at least the end of the Cultural Revolution, we never learn much at all about what he was doing at that time. It’s the Deng era of opening up and stability that define his experience.

It’s unsurprising he’s reluctant to involve himself in a shadowy conflict when he’s got such a pleasant bourgeois life.

This makes his shock when the world starts twisting into something far weirder all the more intense and poignant.

While Ye, unable to recognize the arrival of peace, and unwilling to accept that the world has stabilized makes a terrible and portentous decision because she can’t accept peace, it is ultimately the idea that the world is descending into chaos that Wang struggles with most.

By the time he’s willingly stringing his monofilament lines across the Panama Canal, watching unflinchingly as it slices a sailor into several pieces, we realize how tenuous our sense of comfort is – how any time the world might descend into chaos.

Shi Qiang presents one final view of how people relate to chaos and stability. He’s not broken by chaos like Ye, nor must he learn to adapt like Wang. Rather he thrives off chaos.

This “demon” laughs, teases and boozes his way through situations that leave the people around him reeling. It’s Shi who sees something fishy in the “miracles” sent to confound Wang, Shi who suggests using Wang’s monofilament to take the Adventist base and  he expresses no remorse either at the deaths of all the Adventists, or of the limited civilian casualties the plan will cause. He even suggests attacking during the day to minimize the risk that sleeping Adventists might survive.

When the Trisolarians send their final message to Earth, declaring everyone there insects, Ye goes to watch the sun set on Humanity in the place where she doomed it. Wang descends into depression. And Qiang leads his allies to a town afflicted by locusts.

He points out that the locusts might be as beneath humans as the humans appear to be beneath Trisolarians. But the locusts still thrive, despite everything humanity does. Even though humans never had to deal with the madness of living on a planet in a trinary star system, adapting is something we’re adept at. Shi Qiang invites chaos. It’s his constant ally.

Science in the Three Body Problem

There are a few interesting branches of science discussed or extrapolated from in the Three Body Problem. Since it is science fiction I figured I should at least touch on them.

 The Three Body Problem

The titular problem is a classical physics dilemma. While two bodies act on each other in a predictable fashion, they move toward each other unless acted upon by an outside force, introducing a third body causes the system to become chaotic.

The near impossibility of the task occupies much of the Three Body game segments of the story – as Wang learns the history of the Trisolarian attempt to chart the behavior of their solar system sufficiently to be able to survive its Chaotic Eras and maximize its Stable Eras.

There’s also multiple instances of factions divided into threes within the book: Battle Command, the ETO and the Trisolarians for example, or within the ETO, the Adventists, Redemptionists and Survivalists. These allow this classical problem to both serve as a metaphor for the conflicts of disparate groups, and to be reflected by the chaotic actions of the various factions.

A solar antenna

I’m not certain how fantastical this is. But Liu’s description of Ye Wenjie using the sun as a supermassive antenna for trans-solar transmission is really cool. It made me want to learn more.

String theory

I’m still not entirely sold on string theory. It remains resistant to experimental verification and isn’t parsimonious. That said, the Trisolarian plot depends on unfolding protons from 11 dimensional string theoretical complexity into 2 dimensions in order to create proton-sized artificial intelligences. This leads to one of the most beautifully abstract areas of the text, which I loved every moment.

Nanotube Monofilament

These things are starting to exist in the real world. How long before we get Wang Miao’s weaponized version?

Wrap-up

The Three Body Problem is a tour de force of speculative fiction. It fluctuates frequently between wonder, humour and despair. Ultimately this is a story about how people break, and it breaks its protagonists beautifully. And yet, for all their brokenness it ends on a bitter note of hope.

This, when you consider the scope of Chinese fiction over the last 500 years, positions the story beautifully in the context of its antecedents.

If you regularly read translated SF you’ve probably already put the Three Body Problem on your to-read list.

If you don’t, this book is a perfect place to start, beautifully written and beautifully translated.

Five Fantasy novels you should have already read (but probably haven’t)

There’s a lot of good fantasy novels out there. It doesn’t help that fantasy authors are frequently among the most prolific writers in genre, churning out a book a year or more for decades.

When you find a fantasy author you like it’s all too easy just to stick with them. These books are ones you might not have heard of. But each of them is a brilliant work – what’s more, they represent some of the more unusual and challenging stories in fantasy.

1.  The Pattern Scars by Caitlin Sweet

Ever meet a book that can break your heart? This is one of them. My immediate response to the story is that it reminded me, in the telling, of Le Guin. There was a similar ephemeral quality to the prose.

However this story of prophecy, murder and betrayal is much darker than Le Guin’s books. In Nola, Sweet has created a beautifully realized protagonist, one whose vibrancy radiates throughout the story. And because Nola shines so brightly you feel the pain of her tragedies ever more sharply.

This book is not an easy book. It is however achingly beautiful and if you haven’t read it you should now.

2. Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

Fair warning: this one is a little difficult to track down.

It’s not available as an e-book nor was it available in print in any bookstores I could find. Ultimately I had to order the book online and then waited two agonizing weeks while Canada Post promptly lost it.

But it was worth the wait. Barry Hughart deftly accomplishes something which all too few fantasy authors attempt. He creates a fantasy story set in a world that is not based on mediaeval Europe and succeeds.

Basing his world loosely on Tang dynasty China, Hughart manages to weave together Chinese folk stories and a strong historical understanding of the first Chinese imperial renaissance without allowing the details to overwhelm his work.

I loved Under Heaven and River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay and I don’t want this to sound like an indictment of either of these books, but Hughart employs a defter touch with his use of myth and history. He’s comfortable and confident enough with the historical material he uses to throw caution blithely to the wind.

This willingness to take risks allows him to create a romping adventure in which a dissolute and possibly immortal scholar (he claims not to be but he’s far older than any reasonable person ever could be) and an innocent peasant take on the roles of Holmes and Watson, solving an ancient mystery while engaging in daring do such as a steampunk helicopter escape from a giant invisible spider.

With inveterate scholasticism and bizarre flights of fantasy it’s unsurprising that Bridge of Birds won several awards when it was originally published. And yet, the publishers had trouble marketing the book and Hughart eventually withdrew from writing after only three novels.

3. Wild Girls by Mary Stewart Atwell

I’ve got a soft spot for a coming of age story and this one is a doozy.

A bitter-sweet story about class and privilege, fear of the other, sex and death, Wild Girls is not an ordinary YA novel. I was lucky enough to have a chance to hear Atwell reading from Wild Girls. I say lucky because I might not have ever picked the book up if I hadn’t.

But I’m glad I did. This is the way urban fantasy is best done – with a light touch to the spectacle and a heavy dollop of characterization. Wild Girls is a true pleasure to read. If you haven’t read it yet I strongly suggest you read it right now.

4. Three Kingdoms / The Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong

Ok, this one is stretching the definition of fantasy a bit in that it’s a historical novel written in Ming Dynasty China. It is, in fact, one of the earliest true novels ever written anywhere and more people should read it for that reason alone. Happily a very good translation was published by Beijing Foreign Language Press. It may be difficult to find but I would suggest perseverance.

Why do I call Three Kingdoms a fantasy novel? The truth is that it entirely pre-dates such a thing as genre distinctions. That being said, the fusion of myth and history, the inclusion of the deification of Guan Yu and the lasting influence that this book had on the fantasy stories of Asia all point towards a novel which is closer to fantasy than any other modern genre. The novel can ultimately be summed up by the author’s thesis:

“The Empire, long divided, must unite: long united, must divide.”

It chooses as its protagonists not the ultimately victorious Cao Cao (who makes for one of the most exceptional villains in the history of literature) but rather the oath garden brothers Liu Bei, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu. By choosing to frame history through the lens of the most legendary figures (and also the least successful figures), the Three Kingdoms became a bit of a subversive story.

That element of subversion has led to it becoming one of the most frequently cited stories within Asia, spawning countless movies, video games, television shows and literary works.

5. Above by Leah Bobet

Returning to the present day, Above is another Young Adult entry on this list. This unapologetically Torontonian story (you can even see the CN Tower front-and center on the cover) plays out similarly to some of the works of Neil Gaiman as it tracks the slightly magical outcasts who live in the catacombs beneath the city.

Above brings sensitivity, strength and a strong political consciousness / conscience to the genre. Bobet understands how to infuse a Young Adult novel with her passion and her ethics without ever becoming bombastic or heavy-handed.

Furthermore her protagonists, a boy with the features of a lion and an artist’s soul, a wounded girl who is also a bee, a man whose touch is electric and several more are well realized, beautiful, flawed, monstrous and heroic. If you don’t already own a copy of this book you should buy it right now.