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3.5 stars. Inspired by ancient Chinese epics, The Grace of Kings is a worthy entry into contemporary fantasy. The characters combine larger-than-life qualities of cleverness, wisdom, strength, and courage with familiar human flaws and frailties to produce a story that's as much a play of ideas as an adventure.
The novel is set in a world where seven distinct cultures (some more "Asian" than others) have always resided on seven different islands, constantly fighting with each other, but maintaining a balance of power. However, that ended when one nation developed a powerful fleet of airships and conquered all the others. The new emperor, now in power for some years, has labored to impose a single system on all the nations. But the forced peace begins to unravel when a scheming official assassinates the Emperor and installs a new, more pliable ruler, who doesn't understand that power is a double-edged sword.
Living on one conquered island, indifferent to politics, is the clever but shiftless young Kuni Garu, whose personal philosophy is all about making the most interesting, if not necessarily the most responsible, choices. Growing up elsewhere is an imposing young man named Mata, who burns for revenge against the Empire after what it did to his family, and has little patience for anyone he considers weak or cowardly. And in the background are the gods, who are carrying out their own celestial struggle through small acts of manipulating human affairs.
In their own ways, Mata and Kuni are each pulled into leadership roles when a rebellion begins, the former as an uncompromising warrior, the latter as a bandit leader who reluctantly accepts the mantle of greater responsibility. The two join forces and eventually vanquish the enemy in a series of tough battles and daring schemes.
However, that's only the halfway point of the book. In in addition to the usual political upheaval that accompanies a conflict's end, the outcome of the war sows seeds of division between the two friends, and Kuni exiled to his own small domain, while Mata goes on to prove that a warrior's strength and uncompromising will don't always translate to being a good ruler. And so the novel's real struggle begins, not just over territory, but over values and ideas. The world of the seven islands can't go back to what it was, but where should it go?
As a writer, Liu seems as interested in instruction as storytelling, using characters to embody different philosophies about religion, governance, leniency vs. force, the roles of men and women, science, how to reconcile differing cultural ideas, how to live, love, etc. As a result, most of the characters aren't as well-developed or permanent to the story as Kuni and Mata, and I found myself losing track of who was who at times, especially given that some names sounded similar in the audiobook. The different cultures and gods were also a little confusing to keep in order.
Still, even if the lessons in the story were conspicuous, Liu's insights found their way in with sufficiently light, humorous touch for me to enjoy the novel and its Eastern flavors. If the years to come bring more fantasy set in a Chinese, rather than Western European, milieu, I won't be disappointed.
14 of 15 people found this review helpful
Is there anything you would change about this book?
The story seems to following the model of ancient Chinese classics like The Romance of Three Kingdoms a bit too closely - Grace of Kings attempts to portray generations of history and myth, unfortunately characters and finer plot points get swallowed up in the confusion. This could be three or four moderately long novels instead of one big epic.
What do you think your next listen will be?
This didn't scratch my fantasy itch - maybe I'll check out Wheel of Time finally, or the audiobook version of Game of Thrones.
Which character – as performed by Michael Kramer – was your favorite?
Honestly - I don't remember them.
Do you think The Grace of Kings needs a follow-up book? Why or why not?
Unfortunately, no. There is enough material here for at least a trilogy, which is part of the problem. Perhaps a new series in the same world would be interesting, as long as the author takes his time.
Any additional comments?
Despite feeling like this book was a bit of a dud, I do like Liu's style and feel his future work may be worth a try.
12 of 14 people found this review helpful