The Grace of Kings

A couple of years ago, I read Mono no aware, a short story by Ken Liu. And it touched me so deeply and made me cry so much that I did something I'd never done before, and haven't done since: I stalked him on Twitter solely so I could tell him how beautiful that story was. (He was very gracious about it.)

I didn't know then that Ken Liu is a much-celebrated short story writer. But he is. He's even done the unprecedented, and won the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award for a single short story, The Paper Menagerie. This is all to say: when Ken Liu writes his debut novel, the world pays attention. And me, too. And this book, this book, The Grace of Kings: this is a book you want to talk about

The Grace of Kings is like A Wizard of Earthsea. This is the one thought that kept running through my head as I read, again and again and again. As in Earthsea, the language is spare, only what it needs to be and nothing more. Detail is used only as seasoning; but for the most part, the story is told in broad strokes, leaving out as much as it includes, if not more.

The Grace of Kings is stylized, like Chinese calligraphy. Scope changes fluidly from the broadly historic to the personal from scene to scene. This is not a book you can skim without missing pivotal events, because there is almost nothing in this book that is not pivotal eventually. Now you see the personal struggle of a general trying to make a difficult decision; now you see ten thousand men dying in a sentence or two because of the choice he made. 

This is mythology unfolding, full of larger-than-life figures, heroism and villainy for the ages. I appreciated this change from the very literal, gritty aesthetic you tend to see in epic fantasy these days; the feats described in The Grace of Kings aren't plausible, they're not realistic, but they are compelling, which is all that matters to a reader, really. 

The Grace of Kings isn't the book I thought it was going to be when I started. For one thing, it's not stylistically nor structurally much like Ken's short fiction. But even more -- and following there are spoilers -- I thought this book would be about the fall of an empire and an emperor. But this book moves far more quickly than that. If an insult is given in one chapter, revenge is taken in the next, time and again. Plans are enacted immediately, battles fought, weddings held. 

This makes the book astonishing and a little unbalancing for a reader expecting Tolkien-style epic fantasy where half the book is spent on endless marching through woods and mountains to get to the one place where the one important thing happens. So you're constantly revising your expectations for timelines, for pacing, for what a piece of foreshadowing means. The emperor is done for a mere quarter of the way into the book, if that; the empire itself is fallen halfway through. And then, and then, what happens after?

This isn't a book about the fall of an empire at all, it turns out. It's about a tumbling cascade of inevitable consequences. It's about the web of chance encounters, of friendships and rivalries that seem slight in the moment they form, but that ultimately guide the fate of nations.

More than anything, The Grace of Kings is an incredibly interesting book, and one I can't stop talking about or thinking about, and I keep lobbying people to buy it and read it just so we can dissect it together. In terms of structure, in particular, this is a work doing things you just don't see, and doing them very, very well. I'm looking forward to the sequel, even though I'm sure it will break my heart.


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