(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)
Review Soundtrack: I suggest reading this review while listening to Crisantemi, composed by Giacomo Puccini and performed by the Manhattan String Quartet (Spotify, YouTube).
Ken Liu is, without a doubt, one of the most important short fiction writers of the 21st Century. He has published over one hundred stories to public and critical acclaim and has won the Nebula, Hugo, World Fantasy and many other awards. He is also one my favorite authors ever. Thus, it was with both trepidation and high expectations that I approached The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu's debut novel. Could it be as amazing as his shortest work? It turned out that it was. And then some.
The Grace of Kings is the first installment of The Dandelion Dynasty, an epic fantasy trilogy. But this is not just your average epic fantasy novel. You will find most of the tropes of the genre: emperors and kings, epic battles, gods meddling with human affairs, a touch of magic and mythological beasts, treason and murder, great deeds and honor, love and grief... But it is written in Ken Liu's unique style, with many elements that are not usual in high fantasy.
The first thing that stands out from The Grace of Kings is its amazing world-building. Instead of using the typical European medieval setting, Liu has drawn inspiration from Chinese historical legends to write a kind of story that he has sometimes called silkpunk. The novel is set in the fictional archipelago of Dara, which has a distinct Eastern flavor as well as technology inspired in Chinese inventions (battle kites and airships, for instance). This world is unbelievably rich, complex and vivid, with lots of details (as the fragments in Ano language or the meaning of the different sitting positions) that add to convey the sense of a land full of life and wonders. What is more, Liu manages to embed the reader in this universe from page one, and after just a few chapters, and without almost realizing it, you find yourself knowing volumes about the History and customs of Dara. Truly amazing work.
The plot is also excellent, with lots of battles, plans within plans, treason and secret agendas, but with a fast pace that puts to shame most modern fantasy novels. In The Grace of Kings there is always something exciting happening and there are many absolutely epic scenes, of the kind that stays in your mind for years after finishing the book. At 640 pages, this is no short book by any account, but it reads in a breeze. What is more, Ken Liu's polished prose makes it extremely easy to follow all the events and to remember the large cast of characters, despite the many flashbacks and parallel subplots of the novel.
But the best part of The Grace of Kings is neither its amazing world-building nor its gripping plot. What I enjoyed the most about the book were its fantastic characters (and that is a lot to say for me, since I usually care more about the ideas and setting). The two main protagonists of the novel are Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, but all the characters, even those that appear only in a few scenes, are fully fleshed, extremely believable and, above all, truly human. Many of them are larger than life, capable of incredible deeds that are to be remembered for centuries; but they are also deeply flawed. They are honorable and brave, loving and generous, but also greedy and proud, suspicious and treacherous. Their greatest successes as well as their biggest failings are ingrained in their personalities and Liu masterfully manages to get us to know them so that we completely understand why they behave the way they do.
I love this book so much, that it is difficult for me to find any issue with it. As others reviewers have pointed out, I would have liked to see more feminine characters, but at least the few ones that appear are really amazing. Oh, yes, and the main problem of the book is... that it ends to soon and the sequel is not yet available to read! That is truly a tragedy (but at least most of the threads are closed in this volume and the novels stands perfectly on its own).
I cannot recommend The Grace of Kings highly enough, even to readers for whom epic fantasy is not usually their cup of tea. This is, so far, my favorite book in a year that has already brought some amazing novels. But I dare to say that this is also an important book, one that will be remembered for many years. Do yourself a favor and go buy and read The Grace of Kings, the proof that Ken Liu is one of the most talented fantasy writers ever.