The Grace of Kings ( Dandelion Dynasty # 1) by Ken Liu

Growing up, history was my favorite subject (Given that my mother was a history teacher and at least till Tenth I absolutely loved sinking back into the legends that make up our world in the annals of history! After Tenth grade though, the sciences took over!) The Grace of Kings is epic fantasy yes - but it oh so beautifully reads like my favorite historical lesson. (Impossible not to draw parallel with the Classical Age of Ancient China, the rise and fall of dynasties that make up the rich layered tapestry of this nation's history!)



Ken Liu has swept through every award possible with his short fiction - and we were so glad and super excited that we were finally getting a full fledged novel from him! So with respect to the expectations, it was of course stratospheric and breaking beyond the outer edges of every space-barrier discovered or not. But with The Grace of Kings, the opening salvo in the Dandelion Dynasty, Ken proves beyond any spec of a doubt that he can walk away with his head held high. And we also know that he's just getting started with this. He's building his own dynasty in this genre fiction, full of gems, burning bright and carving that space unique to himself.

His first novel is a riveting tale of war & politics, love & friendship, honor & betrayal mixed up with some annoyingly meddlesome Gods in a landscape that draws parallel with perhaps, an alternate version of ancient China and yet, is a wholly original, fresh and brilliantly imagined world. It's a rip-snorting fantasy ride, epic and grand in scale that thumbs its nose at the currently-in-fashion gritty, dark, in-your-face narrative style common to many of our favorite stories ( am thinking Joe Abercrombie, Brent Weeks and the ilk) and instead, settles for a rendition that unfolds much like a history text-book opening, page after page. It probably takes away the intimacy that I am used to with my fantasy protagonists but it works so beautifully to draw out a well rounded view of the grand scheme of politics in this world that is just mind-blowing! Fringe characters who influence the events and have a say in the turning of the wheels. Minor events that can catapult the world into apocalyptic wars. It's heart-wrenching and haunting, then it goes cold and remote in parts, then takes up a pedantic approach at times, in terms of methodologies of war and deceit detailed and then it's shocking and emotionally draining. Its a roller coaster of a ride through this amazingly detailed and immersive world of Dara. Religion, culture, mannerisms, symbolisms, traditions, vocations, food and culinary quirks, logistics, the clever and cunning inventions - the smallest of the details that make up each of the different island kingdoms of Dara, all brought alive so unobtrusively and so well. The world building, it is just friggin' brilliant. Period.

The plot, simplistically, is about the rise and fall of fortunes of two men - favored by the Gods, admired, feared and loved by the people of Dara in equal measures who grow up to overthrow the yoke of tyranny and then by a strange twist of fate, end up as enemies fighting for different ideals.
As I said before, Ken's style of narration might just throw you off as you tend to be distanced from events and people and yet, Ken invests readers to care much about his two leading men. Two men who are as different as can be. Kuni Garu, a young man with no fortunes and confused about his future, whose compassion and quick thinking are his greatest assets. Mata Zyndu, son of a deposed duke, thirsting for revenge, an angry young man for whom nothing is greater than his ideals and honor.
In the fight against Emperor Mapidiere who broke the pact between the different kingdoms to conquer and annex all of them under one rule, Mata and Kuni join hands through different twists and turns of the fate to unite and take the fight to the empire. The two main leading characters go through a whole process of evolution as the world around them changes by turns. It seems like there is a clear black and white to the proceedings by the second half of the book but there again, Ken introduces new characters whose entry changes our perspectives of these two. Especially Mata. I really really loved this guy! Zealot, idealistic, hot-headed and impossible.

But more than Kuni or Mata, there are fringe characters who actually stole my heart. Luan Zya, a philosopher and strategist who tries to murder the emperor by dive-bombing at this imperial procession right in the beginning of the book - and later pops back into Kuni's life to be one of his main-stay advisors. Or Rat, Mat's die-hard follower whose ideals are defined by his hero's towering acts of valor. Princess Kikomi, a short but powerful cameo whose actions redefine the term 'sacrifice' and which boomerangs back on the imperial forces. Kindo Marana, merchant, accountant and then peerless military general and strategist, whose habits of seeing logic or structure in anything around him serves him well on the battlefield. Gina Mazoti, the shrewd military general (a lady!) who makes her entry in the last quarter of the book and stays firmly in our hearts! There are quite a lot of these characters who actually pop into the narrative at random intervals and set the ball rolling in completely directions.

Ken straddles a dangerous edge, opting in for an omniscient point of view of narration to do justice to the grand scale of things in Dara but for me, it worked. Big time! There was no other way he could have turned this tale around.

As I finish the last few chapters of Grace of Kings, (which by the way is sort of an emotional tsunami and the rise and fall in fortunes is dizzyingly twisty!) I knew this is a special tale. A tale that is just beginning, grand in scope and equally so, in execution. And I know there is no one better than Ken Liu to wield the reins here and guide us down this history. Blending mythology with history seamlessly, Ken's Dandelion Dynasty continues with The Wall of Storms coming out on Oct 4th. 

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