Bingo Square: Snubbed! (Nebula Finalist)
I am a huge fan of A Song of Ice and Fire, and both epic historical fiction and epic fantasy series. As a result, this type of novel was going to appeal to me even if I have been hesitant about reading it for no logical reason – I became aware of Ken Liu because of the praise he received as the translator of The Three Body Problem, and was needlessly worried that his novels would have a similar focus or dark approach. That fear was mostly unwarranted, since one is very much sci-fi with a very dark long term view while this is fantasy which reads like history. In fact, the fantasy bits are mostly the fact that this is a realm that doesn’t exist and the presence of gods as spectators. They occasionally appear to humans in disguises and try to influence events, so it feels very much like the Greek gods of The Iliad and The Odyssey though they have agreed that they will not take up arms against each or directly affect events. There are some situations where they certainly skirt the spirit of the law there but while the gods may disagree with each other, their influence and appearance in the novel is subtle.
The novel is a bit dark but the effect becomes blunted along the way because the novel covers so many events and years that there is a point when yet another honorable man or woman’s death simply isn’t going to cause much reaction. Of course, I wish that person had maybe simply been allowed to live a simple life of retirement after duties served but since almost no one in the novel had that opportunity, it gets a bit weary. Basically, don’t bother getting attached to any of the side characters.
Oddly, while death is a constant in the novel, for a select group, they never appear to be in true danger so it’s an odd novel that seems to have taken some of the lessons of George R.R. Martin but only applied them to half the cast. Anyone can die at any moment unless they are part of this one group. It certainly reduces the tension, but I think that is also at least partially to blame on the marketing of the book. Per Amazon’s product description, “two men rebel together against tyranny – and then become rivals – in this first sweeping book,” and later “they each find themselves the leader of separate factions – two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.” Here’s the thing, though: even as the novel tells the parallel stories of Mata and Kuni, there is never any question who the main character of the novel is. This is the first novel The Dandelion Dynasty, after all, and it’s set up clearly early on who the dandelion is. While the rivalry certainly is a large part of the novel, it is much more the story of the rise of one man. From the very beginning, there is not an even balance in view point chapters for each character, and the reader gets to know one man more than the other.
For the first third of the novel, I was completely drawn into the story. Dara is an island nation with one large mainland island surrounded by several smaller islands. Historically, this land mass has been made up of Seven Kingdoms, with Xana traditionally being one of the poorest and most backward, being only an island nation while the other kingdoms have territory on islands and the mainland. This changes after Emperor Mapidere leads a conquest from Xana, taking over the entire seven kingdoms with superior airpower. While Mapidere implements some things that are positive and would help with trade and knowledge (implementing standards for road building etc.), he implements his vision in such a brutal and authoritarian way that no way can see any good in his actions and grows up hating him and his repression of regional cultural traditions. Still, no one is strong enough to fight him, though there are countless assassination attempts, and it is only after he is dead that his empire begins to collapse and face rebellion as his young heir is guided by corrupt and greedy men.
Kuni Garu is described as more of a gangster, and he spends much of his youth directionless. It is only when he meets Jia that he finds more ambition and settles into a job to support a family. Still, the two agreed that in life, they will always choose the more interesting route, so when the rebellion starts, Kuni quickly becomes part of it though he has a rather unorthodox path to leadership.
Mata Zyndu is the descendant of a noble family from Cocru, and his grandfather was the last marshal before the conquest. Mapidere’s general rewarded that valiant resistance with violent death for his followers and the remaining members of the Zyndu family, not wanting to leave any figure heads for a rebellion alive. He left only the infant Mata and Phin, his 13 year old uncle, alive. Phin, formerly encouraged in his scholarly interests and pursuits, sees his survival as a betrayal of the family, and takes a sharp turn in the upbringing of his nephew. Phin loves Mata but withholds affection to prevent him from being weak, raising him to be a warrior, and instilling in him a sense of duty based on the old tales of his family’s honor and sacrifice.
Though the product description may describe two different views of life, I felt bad for Mata and his character. He was a man forged for war, without mercy, and there is never any question in the novel about whose approach is better. Kuni might be useless as a fighter but he is intelligent, and understands people and the concepts of forgiveness. Mata sees the world in black and white, and doesn’t understand how to properly rule. Kuni may make the occasional mistake or hard call, but there is not much room for debate about the merits of each approach. While I felt pity for the man Mata became as a result of his upbringing, at no point was I rooting for his victory (I was hoping he would change for his sake). I would have preferred a more nuanced approach to the rivalry, showing two different world views that both had some merits, rather than pitting a warrior who epitomizes the heroes of ancient stories with all their lack of relevance in reality against a leader who cares about the people.
There was a point in the middle of the novel where all the repeating battles started to feel a bit tedious but it recovered from that issue when Liu took a break from war and had a few years of “peace” time between wars.
One complaint I saw in other reviews was the lack of presence of women. I honestly hadn’t even really paid much attention to that until I saw the review, but that part didn’t bother me too much. I felt like Jia, Kuni’s wife, was written and portrayed a bit inconsistently, and while I think Liu wants to set her up as someone who is very intelligent and someone the reader should admire, I didn’t care too much about her either way.
Overall, I would see this one is as more of a 3.5 but I rounded down. I liked the non-Western influence, the amount of detail but also felt like maybe it covered too much in one novel, thus keeping all the characters more as sketches rather than real people whose fate I truly cared about. I also would have appreciated a bit more nuance, but definitely plan to keep reading the series. It’s an engaging story, even if I would need to feel more emotionally connected/engaged to want to give it a higher rating.
Bingo Square: Snubbed! (considering that it was up for the Nebula Award against Uprooted and The Fifth Season – haven’t read it but everyone raves about that – I don’t think this one was snubbed per se, and think it absolutely makes sense that a different novel won the award over it but the square fortunately only requires nominated and didn’t win, not “should have won”).