When I started reading the fantasy genre back around the 1979 or 80, a lot of the writers that went through where influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien. The late 1970s, all of the 80s and part of the 90's where dominated by authors who grew up loving The Lord of the Rings. Just as much as Isaac Asimov, John C. Campbell and Robert Heinlein influenced some to become scientists and create their own books, Tolkien's reach was extraordinary. Sadly, s I grew older, I aged out of some authors that I read, in particular Piers Anthony. I adored his Xanth series for a hot minute, before I suddenly realized he was creating a formula that meant the later books were, essentially, predictable. The puns helped, but you knew that each Xanth book would follow the same layout as the previous and Anthony seemed no longer able to deviate from it. His early work, especially in the science fiction tales, were filled with wonderful ideas, but now he has devoted his final years on issuing one Xanth book after another.
So I left the genre behind for a while, something I think I've written about before. Since then, I've read only a handful of fantasy books, mostly Tad Williams whose prose style I like. But I never got into the "urban fantasy" subset of this genre. Those are tales set in the real world, our world, but features many signature fantasy elements like magic, wizards and dragons. TV shows like Once Upon a Time appeal to non-fantasy folks because they're set in place that a viewer can identify. On some psychological level, I think these urban fantasy shows, books, and comics makes folks more comfortable viewing and reading them because it's more tangible, more "real". It's like fans of reality TV shows; they enjoy it because while they know there is some creative editing going on that propagates the fake drama, they see everyday things like cars, Starbucks and smart phones. They can "identify" with these reality stars.
But then George R.R. Martin came along and upset the applecart. His Song of Ice and Fire series owes much to The Sapranos than to the world Tolkien created, though. Martin created an elaborate world, filled with castles, horses, and dragons. But he populated it with characters that come straight from 1970s crime dramas and the European idea that heroes and the villains all live within a gray world where wrong and right blur continuously. Martin did something else most fantasy authors never did during its coming of age in the 70s, you never knew who was going to live and who was going to die. When reading the first book in that series, A Game of Thrones, I'm assuming no one saw the death of Ned Stark coming. In doing so, in killing what many thought could've been the main character of a multi-volume fantasy series, Martin changed the rules and in doing so, changed the fate of fantasy books to come.
So this brings me to Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings, the first book in his Dandelion Dynasty trilogy. Part of the reason I took on this book was mainly because of three writers I follow on Twitter, Wesley Chu, Saladin Ahmed and Kate Elliot. And though Liu had won the Nebula and the Hugo Awards, I was not aware of him (I generally don't read short-stories). Yes, being out the book business since Borders folded in 2011 means I missing out of a lot. Still, I have enjoyed the works of those previous authors, so I thought I would try this book out.
Much like Martin, Liu upsets the applecart, creating an epic fantasy that spans decades and features a lot of action, a lot of death (and the gallons of blood that comes with it) and three dimensional characters (especially the women).
The plot starts with the land of "Dara that has been united under a single banner, that of Emperor Mapidéré. The archipelago had once been a divided set of kingdoms, all of which felt some pain living under one ruler. We meet the young, troublesome boy named Kuni Garu, who's described in the book as "a boy who prefers play to study", one who's mischievous and brilliant, hailing from the Cocru city of Zudi. Across the world, Mata Zyndu is a massive child: tall, with double pupil eyes, and the last child of the Zyndu family, most of whom had been killed in the war that unified Dara. Each man finds his way under the harsh regime of Mapidéré: Kuni assembles a gang of bandits (amongst other exploits too numerous to list), and eventually rises as the self-styled Duke Garu, a bold move for someone born of common blood. Meanwhile, Mata assembles his own army, and determined to reclaim his family's honor and place in the world, sets off to war. Each begins their own rebellion against the Imperial Army, and eventually, their paths cross. Each regards the other as a brother, and together, they drastically change the balance of power in Dara. However, once their war is won, the real struggle for power begins, and the ensuing conflict is far more devastating than the battles that came before."
While most of the fantasy genre has its roots in medieval Europe, Liu takes on the Han Dynasty of China in his tale of revolution, rebellion, and what leadership really means (though he uses this, I think, more as a stepping stone than a full parallel). In doing this, he opens the genre that seems stagnated and that allows him to play with form and style, something I admit took me a while to grasp. And Liu writes both Kuni and Mata as complex people, even if Kuni is less heavy handed in his approach to war and conquest than Mata -who is the epitome of what Star Trek's Klingons may have become if allowed.
There are many characters that come and go like dead leaves in a whirling wind, but the book is close to a character study between two men who have two different points of view when it comes to destroying a bad empire and rebuilding it into something better. The fact the Liu does not shy away and make one too liberal and one too conservative is great example of his writing style.
In the end, though, the book's prose, while dense like Martin's series, is far easier to digest. Perhaps because Liu chose a more modern narrative? I don't know. I liked the book, I liked the fully drawn characters and I liked the idea of reading something that was the same, yet different.
Yet, yet, once again, I have to say I'm not always onboard for the casual way in which life is treated here. Death, I know, is what happens in wars, revolutions or what not. People die both young and old, but it's the mass acceptance of death that sometimes turns my stomach and what appears to be the appeal for these 21st Century take on fantasy. I realize that this is a fiction book, that the people are not real, but it still does not appease my idea that wars are horrible on the common folk. Yes Kuni seems to want to avoid killing soldiers unnecessarily, but it does not absolve him that sometimes him (and Mata) are just as horrible as Emperor Mapidéré.
Maybe that was the point?