It’s been a busy couple of months for me, which is why I haven’t been here. I’ve been writing a lot. I’ve been getting mentioned in Publisher’s Weekly. I’ve been working tons at a job that I really enjoy. And I’ve been neglecting this space. My bad. I’m going to try to do better.
I’ve also been reading. I’ve finished The Fifth Season and The Grace of Kings recently. The first, I am going to talk about with a group of fellow stans, so I’ll share some of that when the time comes. But I haven’t really talked about The Grace of Kings much, and I wasn’t until I listened to Jonah Sutton-Morse’s “We Read This Very Differently” segment on the Cabbages and Kings podcast (more on podcasts later, too.)
I don’t really have the mental bandwidth for an extended analysis of The Grace of Kings, but I can give you my fly-by-night insights on the book in a listicle format. Does that work for you? It’s gonna have to.
Let me disclaim: The Grace of Kings is a fantastically imaginative book, and one of those types of fantasy novels that I raved about in my Imaginative Fantasy post awhile back. Of course, I have some less than stellar critiques of the book, but I love it all the same and I recommend that you read it if you haven’t already. Oh, and there are mild spoilers here, but for the most part I will keep things spoiler free. Got it? Good. Onward, then!
1. The Worldbuilding is spectacular. I didn’t know what to expect when I picked this up, but I got far more than I bargained for with the physical locations, cultures, and people. Regions having different food cultures, different guiding philosophies, and different phenotypical differences isn’t exactly a new thing in fantasy literature, but the mix of these things that Liu gives us is far and away one of the best I’ve come across in a long time. More than just *not* being a redux of medieval Europe, this world is a completely new thing–but still accessible enough to fall into when the story gets good. Also, as a trained bureaucrat, I didn’t find Cogo Yelu or the various tax-generating schemes and tactics particularly offensive.
2. It’s a set-up! So much of the first part of the book is dedicated to setting up the whirlwind stuff that happens in the last part of the book. I put the book down twice, once because IRL stuff was knocking at my door, and again because I needed to figure out a way to catalog all of these threads that were laid down at the beginning of the book. There are a large number gods and kings and generals and bureaucrats introduced in the first 100-150 pages, and it’s not always easy to tell which have an actual impact on the long term plot, and which ones are in there to provide flavor and immersion. This is neither a bad or good thing. It just is, largely owing to the fact that this is such an EPIC tale–the very fate of this world is at stake in such a real way, and these details, minor and all, are very necessary to the plot (and the overall epic movement of the book).
3. Needs more Jia. I loved Kuni Gara. I loved him as a standalone character and as a foil to Mata Zyndu. But the early story really focused largely on the relationship between Kuni and Jia. We are given this red-haired, politically astute, extremely versatile herbalist and I fell in love with her alongside Kuni. It could be argued that he wouldn’t even be the hero if not for Jia being the realest type of ride or die chick. So why does she recede into this super minor role by the second half of the book? I needed her to be alongside Kuni, checking fools and doing boss shit, not barefoot and pregnant back at the crib. And let’s not even get started on Kikomi…
4. I need a fanfic/comic strip/fan video of Mata Zyndu and Karsa Orlong scrapping. Karsa would probably take this, because he’s very nearly a god. But Mata Zyndu isn’t a slouch either. Sure he’s delusional and has a screwed up view of how the world works. But so did Karsa Orlong. Plus, who doesn’t want to see two giant ass dudes with mind-blowingly dope weapons go at it? For that matter, I’d do some tabletop or miniature gaming set in this world. Burning Wheel, anyone?
5. Political Fantasy? Yes…but also, no. And I’m down with it. Sure, there were politics here–this is a world after all. But this story is about a series of events, and the people in them. That in itself lends itself to political machinations, since people are basically walking agendas. I had fun trying to figure out who was a tool of the gods, who was a tool of their pockets or who was beholden to their ideology (lookin’ at you, Luan Zya). Some of the characters were derivative, with easily recognized aspirations and character traits. But some acted in ways that were really refreshing (, and defied my expectations of the book. Even Mata Zyndu, with his linear worldview, surprised me at times. And it wasn’t just the human and divine politics that worked out in this book. Liu did a good job of upending the way that systems (even and especially intangible systems like honor and belief and ancestry) work in fantasy–upending the particular types of work that they tend to do in works of fantasy, is a better way of saying that.
All of these threads and agendas and commitments and divine interventions (real and fake) made for a epic fantasy tale that, again, surprised me with how different it was, even when I should not have been surprised at all. The Grace of Kings has gotten a lot of praise, and I feel that every bit of it is deserved.