Book Review: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

To compare Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings with Game of Thrones would be so obvious as to be a little lazy on my part. Both are sprawling fantasy epics with dozens of major characters prone to dying with little fanfare. Both fantasy worlds have seven kingdoms with parallels in real geography. Even the titles share the same basic structure. So if you like Game of Thrones (or Avatar: The Last Airbender, for that matter), you will probably like The Grace of Kings. And that’s all I’m going to say about that. I’d rather spend some time delving into the Chinese history that inspired The Grace of Kings.

In the fictional land of Dara, there are seven kingdoms patronized by seven sibling gods. For most of their history, the seven kingdoms squabble over territory and jostle for power, but no one state stays dominant for long. When the book opens, Emperor Mapidéré of Xana has recently conquered the six other kingdoms and formed the Xana Empire. Some of his motivation comes from vengeance, but he also believes unification will improve the lives of everyone. He started building roads on the Big Island and underwater tunnels between the various islands, using conscripted labor and funded by heavy taxes. Mapidéré standardized weights and measures as well as the writing system across all seven kingdoms. He also burned a lot of books (and scholars) whose ideas opposed him, so please don’t think of him as some friendly American founding father. (Those guys did plenty of problematic things, but I digress.)

Mild Spoilers Following

Mapidéré’s obvious real-world parallel is the first emperor of a unified China: Qin Shi Huang, or Shi Huangdi. Both emperors unified disparate warring states, ruled through strength of arms, completed large infrastructure projects (hello, Great Wall!), and desperately sought to escape mortality through the use of elixirs and constructing large tombs for themselves. Like the actual Qin Dynasty, Mapidéré’s unified empire is short-lived, crumbling within a generation in the hands of a weak and pliable heir: Qin Er Shi, son of Qin Shi Huang, and Erishi, son of Mapidéré, were both easily manipulated by advisers. The horse and deer test in the book mirrors a story of a powerful eunuch testing his power against Qin Er Shi and weeding out advisers who questioned his power.

In ancient China, a long period of economic prosperity, cultural flourishing, and military victory known as the Han Dynasty followed the turbulent Qin Dynasty. Not so in The Grace of Kings. Even before Emperor Mapidéré’s death, widespread rebellion breaks out similar to the Three Kingdoms Period in Chinese history. Two leaders emerge in Dara: Kuni Garu, a wily former bandit turned leader, and Mata Zyndu, a stern warrior blessed by the gods and last heir of a noble house that opposed the empire. Kuni’s real-world counterpart is Liu Bei, a ruling warlord of the Shu Han state widely romanticized as the ideal benevolent leader who cares for the common people and keeps wise counsel. Kuni is the clear “good guy” throughout The Grace of Kings. The historical inspiration for Mata’s character is less clear. Cao Cao was a rival to Liu Bei who was later portrayed as a merciless tyrant, which somewhat reflects Kuni and Mata’s eventual rivalry. But Kuni and Mata start off calling each other brother, and Mata’s greatest flaw is his obsession with honor rather than any outright cruelty, though his bloodlust is clearly meant to contrast with Kuni’s benevolence.

/End Spoilers

I originally came across The Grace of Kings because Science Guy was searching for “Asian-style fantasy” as inspiration for a tabletop RPG he’s designing. Given its parallels to western works like Game of Thrones and even Avatar: The Last Airbender, what makes The Grace of Kings an Asian American work besides the identity of the author?

The book is clearly inspired by Chinese history and storytelling; the author dedicates the book to his grandmother who introduced him to the Han Dynasty heroes through pingshu, or radio storytelling. I have yet to read Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Ming Dynasty novelization of Liu Bei and Cao Cao’s exploits, but I do see some similarities between The Grace of King’s quick, episodic pace and Journey to the West’s picaresque style of storytelling.

I also enjoyed seeing some of the primary colors of my brain woven throughout the novel: the use of “eating sticks” to consume rice instead of bread, the logogram writing system, the name seals used in place of signatures, even the systemic corruption and suffering that are such an endemic part of Chinese political and cultural history.

Since my own knowledge of Chinese history is woefully inadequate (thanks, American education system), it’s nice to see that history remixed in a fantasy setting. I hope this book makes the Three Kingdoms Period more accessible to readers everywhere, and look forward to reading the sequel, The Wall of Storms

Featured Image by Yair Mejía on Unsplash

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