Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Book Review: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

One of the motifs on my blog this year is my desire for 2015 to be the year of the epic. I am approaching my writing this year with the idea that I need to write more epic and, with that in mind, I am approaching my reading in a similar manner. I was lucky enough to score an ARC of the highly anticipated The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu from the new Saga Press. I was thrilled. I was really looking forward to this book and, to be honest, Saga is exactly the kind of imprint I would love to be a part of as a writer, so this was a no-brainer. I can say this, GRACE exceeded all of my expectations for reasons I did not expect it to enjoy it.

Imagine shoving all of these ingredients into a blender: a trickster, the Rock, giant falcons, whales that humans can ride, bathroom/raunchy humor, big battles between big armies, political scheming and plotting, airships, battle kites, a decadent empire, meddling gods, thrilling adventure, quiet moments between couples and a cast of thousands, how awesome a smoothie would that be? Well, that's kind of what we're looking at with The Grace of Kings.

I love big, sweeping epic stories, but the places that this book really, really works is in the quiet character moments that most authors of this type of book sort of gloss over or don't do as well as a writer like Liu does. It shows Liu's deftness as a writer that he's able to perfectly blend this into a narrative the scope of this story and make it more memorable than some of the bigger moments of the story. And for this alone, the novel is exceptional. But Liu blends a bunch of different genres into it and you all know how I feel about genre mash-ups.

The times between the quiet character moments are occupied by passages that instead of using a close, intimate 3rd person use a more epic voice (I believe this was the way Liu defined it in an interview I listened to on the Coode Street Podcast) and basically tells the story of two men: cunning trickster Kuni and super human fallen noble Mata as they fight for control of the Islands of Dara first as rebels then as rulers. The narrative swirls around them but tells the story through the eyes of a cast that would make George RR Martin shiver, from lowly peasants to noble (and not so noble) kings. But Liu blends these together deftly, using the epic voice to condense the tales into manageable bites and gives even the sidest of side characters of something to do and an important role to play in the larger narrative. What another writer, Martin among them, would take dozens and dozens and dozens of pages to tell, Liu does sometimes in a page or two, sometimes even a paragraph. Normally, this would be frustrating to me but Liu's storytelling works as long as you think of these parts of the story the same you would if you were reading something like "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" or "The Song of Roland."

His worldbuilding is stellar. While Liu uses the expression "silkpunk" to describe the setting, it's far more complicated than just slapping the "punk" label on it to give a feel for the world (I would encourage you to listen to the Coode Street Podcast, because I'm sort of riffing off things that were said during that interview). The world feels wholly unique and, in a lot of ways, made me think more of The Four Kingdoms of Avatar than Westeros or Randland with just the right twists and uniqueness that it stands clearly on its own with the great created worlds out there.

This book seriously moved me. Makes me want to write. I often associate books I'm reading with what is going on around me at the time. The last few months, like Dara, my life as been tumultuous and GRACE has been there to help me escape. While I spent two hours at the IRS dealing with a case of stolen identity, the book kept me calm. During a second visit to the IRS and a double crown (yes, I scheduled at dental procedure and a visit to the IRS on the same day!), it did the same. The IRS part is hilarious because tax codes are a huge part of the story...in a very interesting way. While my daughter was in surgery on her ear, I stayed distracted jumping the islands of Dara with these brilliant characters.

I'm going to say now that this is easily going to make the end of the year top 5. Sharpie it.

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