I picked up Grace of Kings (Ken Liu, Simon & Schuster, 2015) originally because I was enticed by the idea of an epic high-fantasy story not set in a thinly-veiled version of western Europe. The setting of Grace of Kings is a refreshing blend of ancient China and Polynesia, and the un-Europeanness of the story is apparent from the very first page, with an elaborate culture and social hierarchy laid out in clear terms, and sustained throughout the book.
Liu writes in broad, epic strokes, less concerned with the nitty gritty of fantasy world everyday than he is with Events, upheavals and dramatic shiftings of power. I generally like my high fantasy stories to be a bit more fine-grained, but I can appreciate that increasing the granularity, so to speak, of a fantasy novel (think Game of Thrones), especially an original-universe series, can increase the wordcount exponentially, and potentially slow the narrative to a snail’s pace. Liu’s goal in this book is, I think, to set out a sequence of events that describe the tumultuous transformation of a world, and he toes the line deftly between detail and plot progression, making Grace of Kings fast-paced and textured in equal measure.
The story itself reads like a legend: the characters are larger-than-life, the gods play an active role in the story, and Liu doesn’t shy away from the occasional deus ex machina in order to move the plot along. Admirably, this divine intervention creates at least as much conflict as it solves. However, while this godly interference lends a pleasing ambiguity to the characters’ actions, at times the fatedness with which everything happens—the way Risana is introduced, the first escape from Dasu, etc—can at times feel a little heavy-handed, a point to which I will return later.
Apart from the worldbuilding, one of my favorite aspects of the story is the way the characters’ personality traits, which seem positive in one light, can turn on their heads: pride becomes arrogance, fairness becomes indecision, ambition becomes, well, ambition. This was what saved the characters from being one-dimensional, and was the main reason why I grew to like Liu’s style of storytelling. The portrayal of the characters was impressionistic but still complex.
My biggest problem with the book wasn’t with the plot or style, however. It was an issue I see quite a few people pointing out in reviews: the women. It took until the last fifth of the book for a female character to have a tangible influence on the plot (apart from another character introduced early on who meets with what I thought was a rather untimely, unnecessary demise). The rest of the women characters mainly influence the story by providing moral support to the main (read: male) characters or by being relations that the male characters are unwilling to kill, and protecting those around them by proximity.
Which brings up the question: is it possible to write fully developed, agentive female characters within a patriarchal setting? The answer seems obvious: an emphatic yes, but I think the issue is a little more complicated than it first appears. In order to evaluate the female characters in a book there’s two main metrics one can use, questions one can answer:
What roles do the female characters play within the fantasy society? are they represented in all classes and professions? are they craftsmen (or craftswomen as the case may be), tradespeople, nobility, peasants, killers, healers, teachers and students? Or are they only wives, prostitutes, mothers, maids and sheltered princesses?
What roles do they play within the narrative? Wives and mothers can still play important, pivotal roles in a story, and influence the direction of the narrative, even if it’s not plausible for them to occupy all the social roles men can. It’s also very important (in my opinion) to draw a distinction between changing the story through their own actions and ‘influencing’ the narrative by simply encouraging or providing moral support for the male characters.
It is the second metric by which many authors writing stories set in patrtiarchal worlds tend to fall short, and I think Liu and Grace of Kings is no exception in this case. As I mentioned before, most of the women in the story act as narrative auxiliaries; they whisper in their husbands’ ears and nurture the main characters as they grow and learn, and seem, for the most part, more than necessarily bound by feminine stereotypes. Even Tututika, a literal goddess, is said to have slain a famous hero, not with a sword or a spell, but with a poisoned hairpin: an ornament and a weapon undeniably associated—in the public mind, at least—with femininity.
Until the introduction of Mazoti (and to an extent, Mira), all the women in the book are wives, mothers, princesses and prostitutes. Now the hand of fate which seems to move the characters about the field backfires a little: for example, when Risana is introduced, it is directly following a conversation about a character needing to find a wife. I saw the end to that chapter a mile away: in light of the rest of the book, what could this new female character—young, pretty, of a marriageable age—be but prime wife material?
Overall, Grace of Kings represents a story of epic proportions set in a refreshingly original fantasy world. It’s perfect for any fan of Martin or Tolkien whose palate may be tired of ‘everyday’ high fantasy worlds. The book’s treatment of women represents what I believe is an unintentional blind spot for the author, and the situation does improve towards the end of the book. Grace of Kings is worth sticking with, if only to formulate your own opinion, and to see where the story leads to next; this is not a work to be ignored. Grace of Kings can be purchased here, or at your local bookstore.