“We have won the war, and not without pain, but now we must win the peace, and that will perhaps be more difficult.” —Georges Clemenceau, 1918
War makes for strange bedfellows—and even stranger kings. In Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, the first in his epic Dandelion Dynasty saga, he showed an empire as house of cards, pushing the boundaries of its power and its subjects’ tolerance until it collapsed into chaos and rebellion.
Eventually, two polar opposites and wartime friends emerged to threaten the empire: storybook hero Mata Zyndu, a nobleman who believes in honor, strength, and tradition, and Kuni Garu, a clever boy from the streets with a knack for people and a life-battered understanding of what true justice is. Yet even as they neared victory, their alliance falls apart, as neither of them can agree on how best to build the new order. In the end, Kuni Garu does things he’d rather not remember, convinced, with what may or may not be hubris, that his way his best. It is his head that wears the crown at the end—but as we left him, it wasn’t clear how long it would stay in place, or if it should.
The Wall of Storms answers at least the first question. We pick up six years into Emperor Kuni Garu’s reign, and rejoin an expansive (and ever-expanding) cast. The scrappy kids who fought the empire and won are now The Establishment themselves. Kuni and his advisers have cobbled together a new government, built partially on his new ideas about meritocracy, talent, scholarship and fairness; and partially out of the remnants of the old system, based on hereditary privilege, military accomplishment and personal bonds. History doesn’t just melt away with a regime change, however revolutionary (even an enlightened emperor needs to indulge in a little nepotism to keep his wartime allies content).
Six years in, and there is growing unrest in the seat of power, competing movements backed by one of the emperor’s wives, and favoring one of his possible heirs. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a growing cult backing a third contender: the spirit of the dead Mata Zyndu, whose ghost haunts the guilt-ridden emperor still. The business of this novel plays out over the course of years; we watch as the bonds of friendship, love, and fraternity between the former rebels are tested by the hard business of governing in a time of peace—by power games, and hidden machinations, and simple pride. And yet, the biggest threat to peace may be the one no one saw coming, set into motion long ago, on the whim of a now-dead despot. Though new threats lurk and the world has moved on, Kuni Garu’s old enemies may not have played out their hand just yet…
From the beginning, it has been clear Liu is examining the mechanics of power when it is placed in the hands of different kinds of people. He’s shown us what can happen to those who simply push the same lever too hard too many times, and to those who understand that a light touch across the keys is best. The Grace of Kings allowed the most skilled manipulator to rise to the top. The Wall of Storms shows us that governing is a much more complicated beast.
The fights happen behind closed doors, through coded messages and intermediaries, and at a far slower pace. The ability to build and maintain trust over the course of years becomes more important than the ability to give a good speech. The capacity to balance the short-term demands of vying factions will avail you nothing if you cannot reconcile them in the long term. In politics, the most patient person usually wins, sometimes without drawing anyone’s attention until it’s far too late. Showmen may with the present; the truly powerful use showmen to win the story. And, as kings and empires have shown us, the story is what really matters.
It makes sense, then, that Liu goes beyond the machine of government and dissecting the assumptions that make them tick. A good chunk of the middle of the novel is reserved for discussions of philosophy and parables from the past, showcasing competing schools of thought for how the world truly operates, and, therefore, how one should approach life. Liu it’s just following the players in a game of thrones, he’s examining why they feel it’s worth playing at all. It’s important to remember the assumptions underneath our actions, because they are the foundation of our most important decisions—the intersection of culture, personal experience, education and governance that shape who we are, how we think, and which “why” of life we are likely to buy into.
Liu is particularly interested in drawing out assumptions based on class and gender privilege. (There’s a character named Zomi whose storyline may as well be subtitled #checkyourprivilege, but in a way true to Liu’s determination to show the evolution of power and a life of constant change. Draw your own present-day political parallels; it’s difficult not to.) These experiences make for us the story we tell ourselves about who and why we are. How honest we are with ourselves about how those stories influence our ideas and decisions—whether we’re willing to really look in the mirror and face facts—that’s everything. That’s the ballgame.
The heroes of this story aren’t who you think—and I’m not at all sure that they are heroes, in the end. There are engaging new characters (Kuni’s children are now old enough to have personalities, and we spend a lot of time with the firebrand Zomi, who offers us a moral anchor), and familiar old ones whose true nature may just be coming to light. And nothing can prepare any of them for the hard reset that’s clearly coming. Even master manipulators can be unmoored when they find themselves in a world where none of the old rules apply.