“I think I wield power,” Kuni thought, “But perhaps it is power that wields me.”
The Grace of Kings opens in the twilight years of an empire that thinks it is just beginning. It is the aftermath of a long conquest, and the emperor is some years into consolidating all the kingdoms of the great island of Dara, a powerful nation reminiscent of ancient China, into a centralized state. But the Empire’s glory is only maintained by the use of a boot kept permanently pressed on the face of the entire population, resulting, as you might expect, in crippling taxes and corruption, poverty, starvation, and forced labor. As you also might expect of a people with nothing left to lose, it also leads to rebellion.
This is a story of the chaos that results in the wake of rebellion. As centers of power spring up all over the island, two deeply different figures emerge as leaders: Mata Zyndu and Kuni Garu. Mata Zyndu is the last son of a noble line of generals laid waste by the emperor; set on revenge and bound for glory on the battlefield, he’s the sort of figure you expect to head of a rebellion arguing for legitimacy. Kuni Garu, on the other hand, is merely a restless working man who wants something more in his life than working toward domestic happiness (whatever awesome opposition he might face). These two men, their interactions and decisions, ultimately decide the fate of the chaotic island.
Although this might sound like typical coming-of-age epic fantasy, it is not that story. Our protagonists grow from young adulthood into full manhood, but Liu has more important matters in mind than adolescent epiphanies, and goes far beyond a traditional quest-and-battle narrative. This is a story about power: the having of it, the misuse of it, the desperate bids to keep it, the inevitability losing of it. This breed of fantasy is much less invested in the individual’s hero’s journey, and much more interested in exploring the repeating rhythms and patterns of politics and power. It is an older storytelling, a long bard’s tale told in a great hall, with everyone gathered around the hearth.
The point, then, is to see how the plot will unravel, and what a plot it is. After a deceptively calm opening, it kicks in with one of the most dramatic assassination attempts you’ll ever read, and doesn’t slow down from there. At breakneck speed, we move from a fully established Empire, to palace treachery, to rebellions, and more rebellions, and battles, and fallen leaders, and those who rise again, and back to square one…
Plot developments that might take other books hundreds of pages (or several volumes) to work through are dealt with in a single chapter, because the point is to see the whole board, not someone taking your pawn in the corner. This is about how to play a real game of power, for all the marbles, and being able to do it because you know that because the structure of power has not changed, and certain patterns and choices will repeat again and again. It is discerning these patterns, and understanding their ebb and flow, that matters. Characters, even isolated events, are here to serve the wider narrative.
That’s not to say that Liu’s characters are any less than compelling. He’s an award-winning short fiction writer, with a practiced insight into the people he creates—what moves them, what makes them people outside of the confines of a plot—and he effortlessly translates those skills onto the larger canvas of a novel. But here, he seems impatient showing them learning basic lessons, or making agonizing progress toward an elusive goal. Instead, they arrive on the scene with much of their development already complete, ready for the next thing. It’s a daring choice that allows him to do away with false suspense around foregone choices, and instead focus his characters characters on complex moral and strategic questions, genuine puzzles with no right answer.
Liu creates characters who are mercurial, growing, changing people, rather than types. But again—this is not a coming of age story! Instead of striving toward maturation, reconsider their goals or change their minds, putting them in constant flux. Some of them need to change, because of their wrongheaded beliefs, like the female general who fought gender inequality to get her position, yet who doesn’t respect the contributions of other women in her army until another woman calls her on it. And sometimes, when presented with a choice they should morally make, Liu is brave enough to let his protagonists knowingly choose the wrong path for the wrong reasons (with many less than fifty shades of grey). Even with his eye toward the overarching story, Liu makes sure we know that it only continues to unfold as it does because of very human choices made over and over again.
In the end, we leave the tale with a new crown placed atop a head that has earned its place, and may even deserve it. But it is clear this is only the first installment in Liu’s epic tale, and in the midst of triumph, he shows us that people don’t stop striving and trying and wanting just because it is someone else’s “end.” However deserving, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.