Catching Up with Ken Liu and The Dandelion Dynasty

Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. But you already knew that: he’s won the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, after all, and he has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. Of late, he has augmented his short fiction output with epic fantasy in the form of The Dandelion Dynasty, including, thus far, the novels The Grace of Kings, and The Wall of Storms. We recently caught up with Ken to reflect on the series and chat about his plans going forward.

A second big epic fantasy novel: quite the change from the days of writing short stories at a rapid clip. How has your writing process and way of approaching your work changed, two big novels into a series?
I think writing novels has taught me more about the value of patience and being organized. I’ve learned to use timelines and wikis to track decisions and make sure everything still fits together. It’s both easier and harder than writing short fiction.

With the wheels of Dara established under you in Grace of Kings, what did you want to bring to the fore in Wall of Storms?
The Grace of Kings was meant to read like a set of legends about characters who were bigger than life. Their primary concern was the creation of a foundational narrative for a new Dara and its people.

The Wall of Storms, on the other hand, is about the interrogation of those legends by the next generation and the age-old-but-also-ever-modern practice of appropriating and rewriting foundational narratives to fit a new time and to include new voices: who can claim to be of the “people of Dara” and who get to decide its direction are major questions to explore.

Grace of Kings hearkens back to Chinese history and the earliest years of the Han Dynasty. Where do the historical parallels for Wall of Storms come from?
The Grace of Kings draws on Western traditions as much as it does on Chinese traditions, though the bones of the story are drawn from the Chu-Han Contention period before the Han Dynasty.

One way to understand The Grace of Kings is to read it as a reimagining of the Chu-Han Contention through the lens of a narrative woven from strands of Western epics as well as Chinese historical romances. The history, however, is used in a manner so that the story rhymes rather than repeats the history, and the rhymes become ever more approximate in The Wall of Storms.

The Wall of Storms also draws on historical events and allegories from multiple other periods of Chinese history and Western history, and some of the most intricate philosophical bits can be traced to Song Dynasty analogues.

Although its a bit facile, the Lyucu and their garinafin flying mounts came across to us as Mongols riding dragons. Which is totally amazing. What other inspirations did you take in creating them and their culture?
The Lyucu are not based on any one historical group of nomadic invaders, though the Xiongnu people who raided the Han Empire throughout its history was perhaps the most important source of inspiration.

The Lyucu are not, however, “magical barbarians;” rather, they have their own narrative and claim to Dara. The Wall of Storms challenges the foundational narrative of Empires vs Barbarians prevalent in Western and Chinese historiography. They come into the archipelago as another culture that has the potential to transform what it means for someone to be a member of “the people of Dara.”

We noticed a marked increase in prominent female characters and a move toward an evolution of depictions and uses of empowered female characters at various levels of society. Was that something deliberate on your part to try and foster?
As I alluded to above, the three novels in the trilogy were sketched out along an arc of revolution about how foundational narratives are constructed and reconstructed over time by those who have been excluded from it. It was a plan that I followed carefully—indeed, the Wall of Storms was largely complete by the time the Grace of Kings was published.

What you’re observing is one dimension along which that revolution is carried out. Since I conceived of the entire trilogy as a single arc, the second book necessarily carries out (in part) the promise set forth in the first book.

Language, linguistics and communication are big themes in Wall of Storms. I found the morphology of classical Ano to be fascinating. Is this an extension of your work in translation?
I’m glad you liked the sections involving Classical Ano. As far as whether the work I’ve done in translation has much bearing on it, I don’t think so. My translation work has been pretty separate from my fiction, as it was basically an accidental side project that turned into a separate and parallel career.

Classical Ano is a literalization of my fascination with engineering and the ways in which we construct linguistic artifacts along similar pathways we follow to construct (what we typically understood to be) technological artifacts.

So what’s next for you, and for the Dandelion Dynasty?
I’m working on the next book in the Dandelion Dynasty—and having a great time with it. Without giving anything away, this book continues the arc of revolution set out in the first two books, and engages with ideas of historiography and how maturation (for cultures and individuals) is a process of re-reading/re-writing (personal and political) history.

I’m also working on a few shorter fictional pieces that are quite different from what I’ve done in the past. I’m excited to share some of them with readers in the new year. Stay tuned.

Finally, after the [recent] release of Invisible Planets, the first English-language anthology of contemporary Chinese SF, I’m working on a few other translation projects that I’m interested in. I hope to have good news to announce soon.

The Wall of Storms is available now.

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