In this first novel by Ken Liu, we get a taste of life in early China and a bit of insight into what it means to be Chinese. I'll expound on that statement after the publisher's summary.
Two men rebel together against tyranny—and then become rivals—in this first sweeping book of an epic fantasy series from Ken Liu, recipient of Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.
Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, and shapeshifting gods. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.
Though this is a work of fiction set on an archipelago named Dara, make no mistake this book is Chinese history from the death of Qin Shi Huang, the fall of the Qin Dynasty, the subsequent revolts, and the foundation of the Han Dynasty. Though it is a fictionalized account, Ken Liu effectively conveys the culture of the period from the use of corvee laborers to build great projects to the harsh punishments meted out by the Empire for simply being late to the construction site for any reason. If you desire a look into the foundation of Chinese thought and philosophy, this book can do that in spades.
Besides illustrating some of the foundation stones of Chinese culture, the book also does a good job of showing how the Chinese relate to their pantheon of gods. The gods of Dara are handled just like the other characters in this book. They have their strengths and flaws. They have wants and desires. Their interactions with the mortal characters are absolutely in line with what I understand of the Chinese view of such things. They mettle, but all people are free to choose. The gods can influence, but not dictate. People always have free will. The story also illustrates how very little can be considered good or evil on it's own. There is a context to all actions that must be taken into account. A person's actions can be both good and evil. The entire story elucidates Chinese philosophy in that regard.
Inasmuch as this book is a primer on what makes China tick, it succeeds in this endeavor quite well. Where the book does not succeed as well is in the action category. This book will not get your heart racing with adrenaline. It is more contemplative than action oriented. There is plenty of fighting on both large and small scales. But the story is told from the third person omniscient point of view which does not lend itself well to creating suspense. There were times in the story when I thought, "but if he does that then so and so will follow through on his threats to do such and such won't he?" But that was about as close as I got to suspense, as soon afterward there was a new chapter explaining that so and so did in fact, or did not for reasons, do as threatened. It was all delivered as a historian would, with detachment from afar; the emotions of those involved made subservient to the events recounted.
If the story had been told from a more personal point of view, I probably could have cared more for the characters involved in the epic conflicts. For example, there is a movie named Little Big Soldier starring Jackie Chan. It takes place in the Warring States period preceding the Qin Dynasty. I kept thinking about the two characters in that movie while I listened to The Grace of Kings and contrasting them to Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu. In the end, I concluded I cared more about the two characters in the movie than the two main characters in The Grace of Kings. Then I had to figure out why. My conclusion is the movie characters were more personal to me. I could relate to them on a human level. Though I liked Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu (initially,) it was obvious to me they were representative of ideologies present in Chinese culture. In short they were stereotypes. They illustrated two competing philosophies on rulership and thus never became persons in my mind. That was the issue with all of the characters in the book. They were just a bit too far removed from real life because they obviously illustrated Chinese tropes. They were like characters in a fable, making the book about the message and not about the messengers.
That said, let me address one of the biggest complaints lodged against this book by many of its female reviewers: the role of women in the book. This is a book about China 2000 years ago more than anything else. If your condemnation of the book is because it does not conform to your ideals of how modern women should be treated, then you miss the point of the book entirely. Not every story HAS to pass the Bechdel Test, especially if that story unfolds in a place and time where such modern concepts did not exist. Should such a book attempt to portray women in a modern light, it would be seen as a lie and unfaithful to the characters and events portrayed within its pages. It would be like bringing out a stag and forcing everyone to call it a horse. Let me use a more mainstream example. The Lord of the Rings fails the Bechdel Test and no one says it is a horrible work of fiction because of it. Quite the contrary in fact. So do us all a favor and review the work on its merits; not on how you think it should have been written. The Grace of Kings is true to the time and place it takes place. Review it in that light, not your personal political torch.
Now I have to decide if I would recommend this book. To be honest, this book is not for everyone. It takes half the book to set up the main plot arc. The book is 21 and half hours long on audio. There are so many characters, and so much going on, the story labors under the load at times. It can be hard to understanding just who is on what side. The second half of the book was much smoother in that regard, and I enjoyed it more for that reason. I believe this book would have been better as two separate books. The first should have concentrated on the fall of Emperor Mapidéré, and the second should have dealt with the resulting conflict between the resultant states. The destruction of Pan would have been a great place to make that break. As the book was published, it went for epic and got just a little muddled because of it. Still, the book is a worthy read. It contains elegant metaphors, auspicious allegory and some very lovely poetry - all of it deliciously Chinese. If you crave an alternative to western epic fantasy I recommend this book. If you want a wonderfully complex story of trust and betrayal, I recommend this book. If you wish to understand the grace of kings, this book nails it. So yes, I would recommend this book. Enjoy!