The Ink Pot

First, a note.

Thanks for joining me in this, my first attempt at a book review.

I’ve sat with how to approach this for a few days now. What’s the end goal of writing a book review? Should I avoid spoilers entirely? Should I assume you’ve read the book? How much detail do I go into? What makes it interesting?

I read somewhere that a blog isn’t about the person who’s writing it. Rather, it’s about you, the reader. But to be honest, I’m not really sure who you are, what you like, or what you want from this. Or if you actually exist? So, for now, my book reviews will consist of what I found interesting about the story, and I won’t worry too much about anything else.

But feel free to message me on Instagram with any requests, advice, or general reactions. That is, if I’ve figured out how to do that yet. It’s all a process, right?

Oh, and don’t worry. I won’t get into detailed spoilers for this review.

The Dandelion Dynasty by Ken Liu has been making waves in the sci-fi and fantasy community for quite a few years now. Liu is a proper titan of the book industry. Starting out as a writer of short sci-fi stories, he’s also a prolific translator, having brought Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem (currently a big series on Netflix) to English-reading eyes about a decade ago. He’s got three Hugo Awards, three Locus Awards, and a Nebula under his belt. And in writing the Dandelion Dynasty, his first epic fantasy series, he even originated a subgenre of steampunk called silkpunk; as he describes it, a “blend of science fiction and fantasy that draws from classical East Asian antiquity… that relies on organic materials historically important to East Asia like bamboo, paper, and silk… rather than the brass and leather associated with steampunk.” Very cool stuff.

The Dandelion Dynasty is an epic fantasy directly inspired by the real-life Han dynasty, one of Ancient China’s longest and most recognizable golden ages. In The Grace of Kings, Liu introduces us to a breathtaking world full of political intrigue, deliciously grey characters, philosophy, gods, ingenious technology, and heartbreaking conflict.

The main narrative follows the early lives of two men: Kuni Gara—a wily and charming bandit—and Mata Zyndu—a noble yet capricious son of a disgraced royal family— as they embark on a journey to overthrow the ruling Xana Empire. Kuni and Mata, although friends, are polar opposites in their rise to power. Where Kuni is intellectual, Mata is direct. Where Kuni rules with compassion, Mata rules with an iron fist. Their evolving relationship and competing wills form the basis of this story, and Liu constantly challenges his readers to ask themselves what the price of power and peace is.

While Liu grounds this story in authentic characters and personal motivations, The Grace of Kings rapidly spirals into a vast world of competing cultures, histories, and ideals. The land of Dara is comprised of six tenuously united kingdoms, and Liu takes the time to flesh out each one as pieces of a broader whole. As such, The Grace of Kings has the feeling of a historical fiction, or maybe even a mythos, as Liu leans into the cadence and style of myth and legend. For example, the character Mata Zyndu is eight foot tall with double-pupiled eyes. I like to think it’s up in the air whether this is meant to be “real” or not. Is Mata really the colossal he’s described to be, or is this more a foreshadowing of the legend he is to become? The Grace of Kings contains many instances where Liu cleverly blurs his fictional reality. What are we, as the reader, meant to believe?

This review would be incomplete without praising the silkpunk elements of this story. Liu has such a unique and refreshing spin on the implementation of technology into fantasy. Characters like Jia and Risana (two women in Kuni’s retinue) are often used as vehicles to describe the enormously clever machines and engineering feats in the world of Dara. In addition, The Grace of Kings is intensely concerned with philosophy, and the gods of Dara act as quasi-narrators throughout the book, pointing out characters’ various competing philosophical ideals in asides that almost read like scenes out of a play.

Despite all these strengths, The Grace of Kings has very mixed reviews on popular sites like Goodreads. The biggest complaint you’ll see in these reviews is Liu’s treatment of women in the story. It was this criticism above anything else that made me leave the book on the shelf for so long. Who wants to read another fantasy book with poorly written women? There’s plenty of those to go around already. But I decided to pick it up after I read a comment pleading people to give the series a chance as one of the most skillful examples of how to ground a fantasy in bold, complex, and meaningful women in the genre. And having now read the first two books of the series (and being halfway through the third) I have to agree. Do not let yourself be put off by criticisms of this book, because you’ll be missing out on what is turning out to be a truly feminist fictional series. This is a topic I aim to explore more in my reviews of the next few books, but for now I’ll keep it relevant to The Grace of Kings.

Look: The Grace of Kings does warrant some criticism in this respect. One comment I read simply said “why are there no women for like 400 pages?” Although not strictly true (Jia plays a fairly prominent role throughout the first parts of the book; other women in Risana and Mira show up before too long), I get the point. 

The Grace of Kings obsesses over the dichotomy of its two main characters Kuni and Mata, and this aspect, coupled with stylistic and structural choices that point to Liu’s first foray into writing lengthy novels, means that women in this book often feel like supporting acts for the men. But I believe, especially with the benefit of hindsight, that the reader should be able to see Liu’s vision for these characters by the end of the book. Characters like Jia, Risana, Mira, and especially Gin Matozi ramp up their involvement and become essential cogs to plot mechanics as the story progresses. And if you’re put off by the idea of one husband, multiple wives (something Liu plucked from actual history), don’t you worry. Not only is it handled expertly and out of necessity, but you’ll also see plenty of one wife, multiple husbands in the next few books. 

All in all, I can’t recommend this book enough for those of you looking for your next long-haul epic fantasy. The Grace of Kings is a fast-paced, intricate, and unique tale with so much promise. And it’s underrated, too. Superbly crafted, and a proper page-turner.

Now go read it!