The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu is one of those books that I bought because I loved the cover. Love the font, love the image, love the finish. It’s a book that felt great in my hands when I picked it up.
The story is meant to be an Asian take on traditional fantasy. Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu are young men living under the regime of an emperor who took over the seven kingdoms of the Islands of Dara, Garu from a middle class family and Zyndu from a family of noble warriors. They’re both swept up in revolt, become fast friends and allies in battle when they meet, but then jealousies, misunderstandings, and treachery pull them apart.
I wish I could say there’s more to it, but there really isn’t. It’s a fairly typical story wrapped in a pretty package. It was engaging for the first hundred pages or so, but the magic wore off after that for me. I didn’t really get much of an Asian perspective aside from the painfully forced attempts to keep from calling things what they are. The worst example: chopsticks. Liu calls them “eating sticks”. Because they’re sticks that you eat with, but they’re definitely NOT CHOPSTICKS.
And speaking of forced. Ugh. There are several progressive elements in the book that could have been laudable if they’d been better integrated into the characters and story, but instead, they just stuck out for the wrong reasons, more like they were wedged in during rewrites. Maybe a quarter of the way through, there’s a gay character, a fierce fighter, and I thought, “Great!” His friends give him a hard time about crushing on another character and encourage him to follow through. And then: nothing. It’s never mentioned again.
The parts with women had a similar problem for me. Broadly, he made a big deal about talking about how the female characters went against their traditional roles without having them actually do much. They’re still there in service to the men to have their babies and cook and clean and gossip and betray others out of their womanly emotions that they just can’t help because Nature.
It all came across as checking off boxes on a checklist just to qualify for a Boy Scout badge in diversity.
And then there’s the title. That bloody title. Fairly early in the book, a character speaks the title without a lot of fanfare. Great. But then it comes back a few more times. Okay…… And then in the last chapter, he repeats it OVER and OVER and OVER.
Yet I still give it a mixed review, somewhere between 2.5 and 3 stars. There are some innovative battle scenes. There’s a lot of stunningly described scenery. There’s some cool, unexpected, almost steampunk machinery. I have to say, if they addressed some of the problems, this could make a kick-ass TV series. So it’s not all bad, even if some of it is pretty terrible.