The Grace of Kings
by Ken Liu
Format: Hardcover, 623 pages
Publisher: Saga Press
Cover Art: Sam Weber
Release Date: April 7, 2015
"Two men rebel together against tyranny—and then become rivals—in this first sweeping book of an epic fantasy series from Ken Liu, recipient of Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.
Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, and shapeshifting gods. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, 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."
The setting is an island archipelago with many differing states that were conquered and unified in recent history by one of the other states. The plot is loosely based on Chinese history of the fall of the Tang dynasty and the rise of the Han. You can tell from the blurb there is obviously a rebellion, but what the blurb fails to convey is the scope of the story. The friendship between the two main characters is the core of the novel, but it is not the only part. The author has a lot to say about power, politics, friendship, tradition, class, and the roles of women. Being epic fantasy there is a good deal of political manuvering as well as battles on land, sea, and air, from almost every land in the setting and over a long period of time. However, it is the quieter moments that are most important.
One of the things I really like about Liu's short fiction is that he is very good at creating emotional resonance with the stories. A good example is "The Paper Menagerie", a heartbreaking story of a young man's ambivalence toward his Chinese-American heritage and his mother's small magics, which won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the WFA for novelette in 2012. I'm happy to say that Liu managed to transfer much of this resonance to the novel. Though the book is epic fantasy, it doesn't always feel like it because Liu often handles the big stuff quickly in chapters or paragraphs, almost like background, while concentrating on character moments. Gary K. Wolfe of Locus magazine referred to this as a character-driven epic, which certainly fits. As a consequence, there is a lot that happens in this book and it packs quite a punch. Most other authors would need a trilogy or two to cover this much ground, while Liu does it one novel.
I do have one or two minor quibbles. On occasion it feels like Liu isn't completely confident writing longer fiction. And towards the end of the book, the character moments become a little superseded by the plot so that it feels like more of a chronicle. This was only a minor issue for me, but I thought it should be noted.
I also want to add that there is a prequel novelette called "None Owns the Air", set some decades before The Grace of Kings, that tells about the development of airships. It's not necessary in order to read the novel, but I think it's worth reading on its own.
The Grace of Kings is a spectacular debut novel and I would heartily recommend it to everyone.