I have pretty much been excited to read Ken Liu's upcoming (7 April, 2015) debut novel, The Grace of Kings, since the sale was announced. Ken is one of my favorite short fiction writers - "The Paper Menagerie" and "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species" are just two of the many stories of his that I have loved. I love the intelligence of his writing, his gift for language. So I was thrilled to receive an advance copy of The Grace of Kings.
(Here is the disclaimer that not only will my debut novel, Roses and Rot also be published by Saga Press, I share an editor with Ken. So please feel free to apply that filter to what comes next.)
The short version of this review is that I loved the book, but for close to three hundred pages, I was not at all sure that I would.
My eyebrows went up when I read the list of major characters. There did not appear to be a lot of women in the book, which, honestly, seemed a surprising choice from a writer that I knew well could write complex and interesting women. This wasn't someone who I thought would fall back on the facile excuse of "but it's epic fantasy, so I don't need ladies."
I trusted Ken. I liked his writing. So I kept reading. And at the beginning, all of the expected hallmarks of epic fantasy are there. There are rebellious boys who get caught up in history. There is a cruel ruler, and others, crueler still. There is a champion, seemingly touched by the gods. There are the gods themselves, as powerful and petty as any pantheon. And it's really well-written stuff. Ken's prose is as terrific as you would expect from reading his short fiction. His pacing is great. But there were almost no women.
Here's the thing. I have become increasingly less patient with books (movies, television shows, any media really) that don't have women in them. Or that have a woman, maybe two, but they're basically a name walking around in a dress. Life's too short, there's too much to read, and if you can't figure out how to get interesting women as characters in your novel without a really, really good reason for their absence, I'm going to put the book down.
Jia, though, Jia was great. She was smart, she had skills. Jia's husband, Kuni, one of the main characters of the book, was smart enough to recognize how great Jia was. I loved her. I loved them as a couple. I kept reading, wishing that I'd see her again.
But at that point, I was a couple of hundred pages in, and reading mainly on authorial trust, and the hope that some of the other women promised in the list of characters would show up soon, or that Jia's role would suddenly change dramatically and result in a lot more on-page time. I was pretty sure that this was going to be a book where I diplomatically said "Yes, Ken is very talented; I'm just not really an epic fantasy person" if I ever had to talk about it, and on the inside, I would be extremely grumpy.
Somewhere around page 300, things changed. I'm not going to go into all the ways how - spoilers, dearie - but they changed. More women showed up, and had more time on the page, and they were well-written. Interesting, unique, fully realized characters. Bigger than the conventions of their roles. It also became clear that the absence of women in the earlier pages (and indeed, carrying on - there are more, but there are never many) was a deliberate authorial choice.
Because at this point in the book, it begins to become clear that The Grace of Kings isn't really all that interested in hewing to the expected hallmarks of epic fantasy. It's interested in subverting them, in interrogating them. In exposing what living by them does to a person, and to a world, and in looking at the places - and people - that epic fantasy as a genre often forgets. I was struck by how grey in moral tone the book was - not gritty, not grimdark, but they kind of grey that happens when people are complex, where the world is complex, and where people may genuinely want to make it better, but there is no agreement on precisely what better means. I was struck by how real - and how potentially glorious, and potentially tragic - the world felt as a result.
So at the end, while there could have very easily been a point where I bounced off of the book, I'm glad I kept reading. I do think The Grace of Kings is extremely well-written, and I am looking forward to reading the next book in the trilogy.