THE GRACE OF KINGS
By Ken Liu
Saga Press/Hardcover/623 pages/ $38.52/ from Books Kinokuniya/3/5
This post-colonial, post-modern mash-up of a novel, a fantasy war epic with a killer hook - think The Game Of Thrones meets Romance Of The Three Kingdoms - will gladden the hearts of those in search of easy, exciting summer reading with some brains (and brawn).
China-born, United States-based author Ken Liu has written a "silkpunk" story set in a well-crafted fictional world.
Best known for his short story The Paper Menagerie, which won the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards - a triple crown in sci-fi and fantasy writing - Liu has taken the "steampunk" subgenre, melding 19th-century steam- powered machinery with contemporary technology and aesthetics, and added an Asian twist to it.
In The Grace Of Kings, battles are fought with air ships of silk and bamboo, lifted by a gas lighter than air and steered by giant oars.
Mechanical vessels in the shape of narwhal-like creatures are submarines powered by volcanic rocks found on ocean floors. Herbal concoctions can dissolve rock.
The tale concerns the power struggle on the archipelago of Dara, islands divided into seven kingdoms, which have been unified with great cost under the Emperor Mapidere.
Liu’s evocative writing brings his huge cast of characters to life, presenting amusing stock types effectively, reminiscent of Chinese classic The Water Margin and its motley crew.
When rebellion breaks out, the gods of Dara themselves take sides, championing a duo of unlikely sworn brothers: Kuni Garu, a garrulous yet kind and likeable bandit; and Mata Zyndu, a brave and majestic fighter, and last of a long line of esteemed warriors.
When Mata's might results in great victories but also suffering for the people, Kuni must make a tough choice.
Liu's evocative writing brings his huge cast of characters to life, presenting amusing stock types effectively, reminiscent of Chinese classic The Water Margin and its motley crew. His battle scenes and strategic intrigue are rendered in flashes of cinematic brilliance, worthy of a Zhang Yimou historical blockbuster, while kings and their advisors spout adages paraphrased from Confucius to Sun Tzu.
Despite its action-oriented pacing, Grace Of Kings manages to explore themes such as the link between ethnic diversity and economic clout. Soft diplomacy is employed by Kuni's peripheral Dasu state, for example, when it promotes its fusion cuisine far and wide. But, mostly, governance comes in for examination, especially the collision between ideal leadership and pragmatic politics.
Can one ever hold on to power and get ahead without sullying one's hands with dirty methods? Is it better to respect individual freedom or impose monolithic control in order to rule effectively?
The constant battles between various factions in the book can get tiresome after a while, blurring into one another, and the fortune reversals can give you whiplash.
But for this reader, weaned on both wuxia movies and English literature, it is a breath of fresh air to find popular fiction that unabashedly marries both with finesse.
If you like this, read: Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel (15th Abridged Anniversary) by Luo Guanzhong, translated by Moss Roberts (University of California Press, 2014, paperback, $53.29 from Books Kinokuniya), the Ming-dynasty literary classic.