[Editor’s Note: What follows is a critical essay in the traditional sense: an in-depth and spoiler-filled analysis of Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings—focused particularly on the women in the novel. It’s thoughtful, beautiful, and important—but if you’re sensitive to spoilers, you might enjoy reading it more after you’ve completed Liu’s epic novel. If you’re looking for an (almost) spoiler-free review to help you determine whether to buy it, let me suggest Justin Landon’s review on Tor.com.]
Many months ago Joe Monti, editor of Saga Press, Simon & Schuster’s SFF imprint, sent me a copy out of the blue of Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings for a possible quote. More precisely, and using the proper polite etiquette, he contacted my editor at Orbit who forwarded his email to me.
I knew Ken’s name, of course. He’s a multiple award winner (Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy) for his short fiction. He has also done an important service to the sff field by translating short fiction and novels from Chinese into English, works that readers in the English-speaking market would not otherwise be able to enjoy. The Grace of Kings is Liu’s debut novel.
In this post I’m going to do something I rarely do: I’m going to reveal my thought process about how I read this novel, and because some of it will come across as critical I’m stating right up front that I loved this novel.
It is beautifully and intelligently written. It’s a great story about the process of history and politics that includes memorable characters, fantastic world-building and invention, and an adept use of structure that melds Western epic traditions with the Chinese tradition of multi-layered narratives like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Our field likes to talk about novels or series that “redefine” the genre or are “bold and edgy” or “innovative.” After 26 years in the field I can say that often I do not agree with that assessment because usually there were others who did the same or similar thing earlier but did not have the popularity or readability or critical visibility to be granted the imprimatur of being a genre-defining book.
The Grace of Kings is genuinely innovative as a template for modern commercial epic fantasy.
So I will go out on a limb and state that I believe The Grace of Kings is genuinely innovative as a template for modern commercial epic fantasy. It does its thing in a way that blends epic sensibilities, and it does so from the perspective of a creator who has grown up within multiple traditions and thus has a unique ability to weave both together in a completely organic and persuasive way. (I’m seeing this blend done very well by other writers also, of course, but that’s a topic for another post.)
[Author’s note: I read a manuscript file and thus there may have been changes to the final published copy, so if I reference things that have been altered, I apologize.]
I Start Reading
However I had no particular expectations, only hope, when I began reading and immediately got hit with a strange doubled sense of consciousness. The opening scene in which an emperor takes part in a triumphal procession as a man on a kite attempts to assassinate him is exciting and fabulous (kites recur in the story) while meanwhile in the emperor’s procession there exists a float with sexy dancing girls.
I mean. Seriously. Sexy dancing girls in a society I have as yet no reason to believe encourages or tolerates excessive public displays of sexuality.
I actually stopped dead in my reading and thought, “How can this be? I can’t just have read that dreadful cliché in a story by a writer I know thinks about these things and yet here it is, a cheap and easy detail of the kind that litters the ground of so much unimaginative epic fantasy . . . even my own in places, I succumb to this cliché too, so let’s not be too judgmental here, okay? It could just be a fluke and not a harbinger of terrible unthought-through gender roles to come. It could mean something else.”
So I kept reading.
It took me about 50 pages to get my reading protocols fully adjusted to how Liu uses different layers and types of narrative rather than a straight third person viewpoint. The gods provide a “Greek chorus” giving us a lofty (but squabbling) omniscient view of the action. The main characters’ through-story anchors the structure. Within these weave smaller and often finite short threads in which we get all the background on and then the main events of and denouement in the lives of specific minor characters whose fates intersect the main story, which, we come to see, is in this first book the story of how a corrupt but extremely powerful conquering emperor and his court can be brought down and replaced by other, possibly (or possibly not) worthier people.
A couple of points:
Liu never backs away from revealing the dreadful misery and carnage that accompanies such upheavals, both in terms of the larger effects on the population and the specific effects on individuals.
He also does not pretend there is a simplistic and exceptionalist answer to questions of governance and rebellion. No character is fully good or right, and I’m not sure any is fully bad as we catch glimpses into what drives people to the actions they take.
He occasionally pauses for exchanges of philosophic conversation in a way totally appropriate to the aesthetic of the text. Likewise he is a skilled enough writer that these abstract interludes are interesting and never boring or slow.
There are a lot of characters. Even I—champion of the cast of thousands—had moments of getting confused, but the narrative structure and the omniscient viewpoint through which it is all told specifically work to make it possible for Liu-as-narrator to drop down to explain things to us when we need explanation in a way that third person limited or first person would not gracefully allow.
This is a fantastic example of a story told using the omniscient viewpoint, a technique hard to pull off and not nearly as popular as it was, say, a hundred years ago (third person limited being a relatively recent phenomenon). Liu head-hops with abandon, and it works because the omniscient viewpoint is firmly established from the beginning.
Yet by 30% in I realized with a sense of creeping sadness that this was a dude story, set in a rigidly patriarchal world.
Yet by 30% in I realized with a sense of creeping sadness that this was a dude story, set in a rigidly patriarchal world. Main character Kuni Garu’s wife Jia Matiza is OBVIOUSLY smarter and more capable than he is and yet we only catch glimpses of her and then only as she acts as a help-meet to his story. Somewhat later one of the minor character short stories sets up the story of Princess Kikomi, who uses beauty, sex, and death to save her people from imperial retaliation, a story that makes complete sense in the context of the society’s mores and which is vividly told in a way I totally could see unfolding on screen as part of a multi-season tv drama. But because Kikomi and Jia are basically the only two women who appear within the plot up to that point it felt discouraging.
I have read hundreds of novels over the course of my life in which there are no significant women characters. It’s no wonder women have flocked to read, and write, Urban Fantasy and Young Adult these days, which far more often center women in important roles. Really, I can’t say this enough: Whenever some guy complains that (for example) “all romances are the same,” I roll my eyes because so many of the books I have read are to all intents and purposes a re-tread of the same boy-coming-of-age or man-fighting-the-system or father-son-conflict or war buddies story, and so on. Yet these stories are never seen as intrinsically repetitive even when the tropes and emotions and plot structure are the same. Each one is individual! Unlike those repetitive romances!
It’s not that I don’t like stories about men.
I LOVE STORIES ABOUT MEN. SOME OF MY BEST CHARACTERS ARE MEN.
It’s just I have read so so so many and I am so so so tired of reading—and viewing—what begin to feel to me like the same thing over and over and over again. This is why (except for Season 2) the TV show Justified—well written, well filmed, well acted—bores me: It often seems like a series of dialogues between men (in different combinations) that are supposed to be profound and difficult and edgy and, you know, I’ve seen every single one of them before, multiple times. I’ve seen it already. I’ve read it already.
As I pondered these deep thoughts, I realized that actually what I really wanted was to stop thinking about the issue of gender and get back to reading The Grace of Kings . . . because I WANTED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED NEXT.
The skill, story, emotion, and characters of the story had drawn me in. The narrative was fascinating because it was well done and furthermore because it was not being told with the same repetitive tropes and rhythms as is so much fiction I run into. I was enjoying it in the same way I love The Wire, a brilliant television show that focuses intensively on men and does not do particularly well by its female characters with the exception of Season 4. I consider The Wire one of the most complex and insightful narratives I have ever seen on tv . . . even considering how it scants the role of women in a modern society.
Many stories that don’t include women in any significant way leave them out because the frame and aesthetic of the story world is unimaginative. It’s a writing flaw. Yet—and this should go without saying but unfortunately I have to say it—it is also absolutely completely possible to tell an excellent or even just fun and entertaining story in every possible iteration, with men, without men, admixed genders, and so on. Whatever Liu was doing in this book, it was working for me, which made me think about why other books don’t work for me, and what the difference in approach is: also a topic for another post.
Liu is playing a long game: He brings in women characters in a major way in the last third of the book.
As it happens, Liu is playing a long game: He brings in women characters in a major way in the last third of the book.
While many laud the martial character of Gin Mazoti—a character I very much appreciated and enjoyed—I was just as happy to see Liu also focus on women acting with agency in more traditional roles. As I have said before and will doubtless say again, as much as I love kick-ass women—and I really really do—if we as writers can only give importance to a woman character (especially in a society written to be patriarchal) when she does things that are coded as “male” in that society — that is, only if she “rises” to a societally-designated male status (as Gin does) — then we are not in fact raising the status of women overall or doing ourselves or our characters any favors.
Liu does not do that. Once he deploys women he uses them in a variety of ways and in a variety of roles and with a variety of personalities. I personally will be most interested to see how he deals in the second volume with the two vying queens: That will be a serious challenge because it is easy to fall into tired stereotypes about grasping, jealous women and hard to unfold the nuances of intelligent women trying to make their way and protect their children in a society stacked against them.
Here’s another and even more interesting thing that Liu does:
When Kuni Garu realizes he can use women to win his war precisely because his (male) enemies will not expect it or even react to it, we as readers are totally with Kuni. We don’t need a single thing explained about why this strategy will work because Liu has resolutely stuck to his patriarchal society with its focus on the men’s lives for so much of the book. He uses our own expectations of reading traditional patriarchal societies in an epic fantasy as part of the reversal he creates. When the defenders of Rima can’t defeat Gin’s smaller force because their commander not only holds to outmoded tactics but can’t believe “an ignorant girl” can lead an army, the story has already prepared us for Zato’s behavior. This element of the plot would not have worked as well if Liu hadn’t set up the nature of this patriarchal society, and the general absence of women as actors on the “public stage” of life, so patiently.
I do think Liu makes a pair of minor stumbles in this regard:
In Chapter Twenty-Two, The Battle of Zudi, Kuni’s stirring “I’ve seen the bravery of Xana’s women first hand” speech pretty much comes out of nowhere. What was startling wasn’t that Kuni would make such a speech as he’s the perfect person to do so within the narrative and furthermore this incident sets up his later willingness to raise Gin to a general’s rank and to listen to women in general. What was startling is that up until this moment we have barely seen any women even in the background and in fact don’t see the very women he is talking about, much less all the work they are doing, until he identifies them to the other men and thus to the reader. It jarred me at the time of reading because women had been invisible in the text before they were so suddenly called out and praised—by a man—as part of the plot. However, I must note it is possible Liu wrote it this way on purpose; that is, that he waits until Kuni gets the other male characters to see women before the reader starts to see women in any numbers, in which case I applaud his subtlety.
I confess I was puzzled and disappointed in some aspects of the depiction of the islanders from Tan Adü, the land of savage cannibals, who have two important set pieces in the story (the plot elements of this worked fine for me and I love the crubens). I had the feeling the islanders were meant to feel culturally different from the other peoples we meet, just as they are described as being physically distinct. I’ve read a couple of reviews that suggest there is a Polynesian element to the setting, but as a person who lives in Hawaii (although I hasten to mention that I am not Native Hawaiian) I don’t see that correspondence at all. When I read the Tan Adü parts they felt culturally disjointed because I felt I was being told one thing and shown another, right down to the unseen women of the islands literally being mentioned solely in reference to sex and food.
However, for me as a reader these proved to be minor issues within a text that bowled me over. I for one am so very very glad Ken Liu is writing this series and I eagerly anticipate the next volume.
In this review I have chosen to mostly focus on the role of women within the text, yet in a narrative this rich there are any number of vectors and tangents out of which discussions can unfold. I invite (yes, YOU!) to comment with your own observations or responses on any aspect of the novel.