Thursday, April 23, 2015

Grace of Kings

I read Grace of Kings, Ken Liu's phenomenal debut novel over the last couple weeks and really enjoyed it!  It's a book that does a lot of very interesting things with style.  It's set in a far-eastern setting but deliberately avoids easy analogs to China and elsewhere.  It's a big, complicated, wonderful book.  You should go read it.  If you're an author, you should probably figure out how it works.  If we don't look back in 5-10 years and comment on Grace of Kings' influence on the genre, I'm going to be very disappointed.

I'm not going to attempt to write a review of Grace of Kings.  I don't think I've got the skill to write such a review, and I think there's too much to dig into for a single review anyway.  If you'd like a general review, Justin Landon wrote one for Tor.Com.  Kate Elliott (at A Dribble of Ink) and The Book Smugglers both have good posts that focus on gender in the Grace of Kings.  Down at the bottom, I'm including a link to all the tweets I wrote along the way.

In lieu of a review, here are some observations/questions that Grace of Kings prompted that I'd love to dig into.

  • There seems a general consensus that Grace of Kings is a very deliberate book.  The word choice is clear, the narrative structure is deliberate and different from traditional Epic fantasy. I'd love to dig into how the book pulls this off.  What techniques tell us "I know what I'm doing here"?
  • Related: This often knocked me out of immersion in the story.  That's one reason I'd love to dig into the techniques used.  Is there a simple tradeoff between immersive storytelling and showing some of the critical infrastructure?
  • Grace of Kings doesn't have a lot of fight scenes, and where it does, they are often cinematic, focusing on one or two key scenes before moving to the conclusion.  (Think of Mata leaping off the airships, Kuni & Mata peeing on a burning battering ram, or Mata cutting down the cavalry bandit & breaking his sword.)  I'm not very familiar with fight scenes, but would love to see some close analysis of these.  Maybe along with Max Gladstone's essay on fight scenes?
  • There are a series of miniature stories within Grace of Kings focusing on the backstory of one of the characters.  Early on, I started referring to these as EveryHero narratives because some (Mata's comes to mind) seemed almost unbelievably (certainly intentionally, see above) cliched hero stories.  Some things that don't necessarily qualify as backstory do seem to fit as EveryHero (Kikomo's betrayal of Mata's uncle with the subsequent divine tribute springs to mind), while some of the backstories are not really straightforward heroic narratives but are important self-contained stories.  
    • I'd love to dive into these.  How many of these stories are there? Do they get less common & more complex as the novel continues? (My gut is yes).  
  • There are a number of leaders in the story: a whole series of last living exiled ruling families (the emperor was actually not nearly as bloodthirsty and ruthless as portrayed), upjumped commoners like Kuni, bureaucrats and palace flunkies.  I *think*
    • All of the formerly noble houses acquit themselves with honor by the old standards of honor.
    • The bureaucrats are generally there because of merit and do a good job even when moved to unfamiliar settings
    • The upjumped nobility, with the notable exception of Kuni, don't do very well.
    • The palace flunkies are useless and/or actually malicious
    • The imperial courts are generally more effective than the royal courts because of the emphasis on merit.
    • I'm more confident in some of those assertions than others, but I'm pretty sure they hold.  And I think that's a *really* interesting and very traditional subtext in a story that's both very intentional and also intends to subvert many stereotypes
  • The essay I do want to write at some point is to argue with this passage.
  • Essentially the story seems to argue that hardheaded practicality is valued, while crazy schemes like attempting to divine the will of the gods are useless.  In this part of the story, Mata has sacrificed 20,000 soldiers to appease a god, after losing an entire fleet.  The "practical" techniques that will be invented include a tunnel to a neighboring island, built by using alchemy to dissolve stone, and and submarines that look like giant narwhals, powered by steam engines.  (First use of steam technology in this world as far as I can tell).  It seems to me that there's a narrative tension between wondrous and impractical inventions, practicality, and the ambiguous intervention of the gods.  I'd really like to pick at that.
  • It struck me that the story up to the overthrow of the old empire was a self contained story with a narrative that bounced around somewhat unpredictably throughout.  Afterwards, there was a bit that was almost just marking time until Kuni and Mata's fallout.  Would love to see how much the scenes in different parts of the story serve to move the plot forward versus doing other things.
  • Would love to read more about specific references within the story.  I think there are at least some references to Homeric epithets, and some callouts to specific phrases in Milton (and Shakespeare?).  I saw the emperor taking a slave girl from his chancellor as a bit of an Agamemmnon/Achilles story (though I don't know where else this sort of story shows up).  I don't know anything about the eastern traditions, specifically Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  I think that Kuni riding up the river on Narwhals towards the imperial city seemed a deliberate echo of Paul Muad'Dib Atriedes riding sandworms against the Sardaukar and Emperor Shaddam.  Would love to see some of the references, how they've been twisted and modified.  Also some discussion of what it means to echo literary traditions, and what it means to claim an inheritance from so many literary traditions.
  • Populations and natural resources seem nearly inexhaustible in this novel.  The lift gas in Mata's dirigibles doesn't give out until the war is basically over.  New armies can be levied, huge numbers of lives are thrown away.  Kuni can be exiled to the most backwards of all islands, support a household, hold a court and invent crazy alchemical things.  With a slightly larger island he's got the ability to build a fleet of submarines.
  • Another way of looking at this is that Grace of Kings seems comfortable asking to suspend disbelief for specific reasons.  I think Brandon Sanderson's on record talking about cool trumping believability.  There seems to be something similar in Grace of Kings.  The beautiful floating city, Kuni's exploits.  Some things have clear historical precedents (fighting kites!) and some don't, but the reveal and cool factor seem to trump.  Is there a coherent argument for when disbelief should be suspended in the book?
  • There's a common narrative device of hint, result, reveal which I suspect is cribbed from mysteries.  Some clue is dropped, then we see the battle taking an unexpected turn, and only after is the key moment revealed (Mata attacking Kuni, a desperate cavalry charge that turns out not to be cavalry, then the descending airships, and finally Mata meeting his advisor with the airships a few hours earlier).  In at least one case (the first siege Kuni & Mata withstand, where we see that Kuni's prepared food but not supplies like sand and hoardings), the reveal is in fact a lack of preparation.  Anything more to dig into here?
There's probably more.  I may update this or add them in the comments.  Point is, there's a LOT going on in Grace of Kings.  You should read it.  You should talk about it with your friends. Or with me on Twitter.  Or since I'll be starting a podcast soon we could talk about it there.  Or in the comments? Comments? Really?  Anyway.  Grace of Kings.  Lots of thoughts, most of them unfinished.  Feel free to finish and jump off if you're so inclined.  What really awesome aspect of the story did I just ignore with that list?  (And yes, I deliberately avoided discussing the role of women in the story.  There are two good blog posts, and I added my comments there).

For those who are still here, my tweets on Grace of Kings as well.

1 comment:

  1. Heya! Here through the links on Cabbages and Kings.

    Another way of looking at this is that Grace of Kings seems comfortable asking to suspend disbelief for specific reasons. (...) Some things have clear historical precedents (fighting kites!) and some don't, but the reveal and cool factor seem to trump. Is there a coherent argument for when disbelief should be suspended in the book?

    This. This kept throwing me out all the time. The book was interesting, but to me it felt chock-full of speedbumps.

    I liked your comments and your readthrough tweets; now I'm looking forward to listening to the podcast :)

    At the time I went into great detail with my own reactions, with both an overall review and also immediate reactions as I read. Overall, I liked the book a lot less than you did, but it looks like we touched on some of the same points. If you want to compare notes, you might like it :)