Power, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If you didn’t already know this, you will after reading The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. This fantasy novel begins with the death of an emperor who had hoped to completely transform his world through the next several years of near constant warfare as various warlords and would-be kings try to carve out their own territory.
The Grace of Kings begins before the civil wars with a man, Kuni, who is so busy having a good time mooching off of friends that I had a hard time believing he was going to be one of the heroes of the book. Kuni is just too nice to be a political wheeler and dealer. I was more likely to believe that Mata (later Kuni’s friend, then his enemy) was going to be the big hero. Mata, after all, was raised to take vengeance against the emperor who had his family killed and trained to be a great warrior.
Over the course of the book, we see Kuni grow from a ne’er-do-well to a political radical against a very violent background. The emperor who is widely hated dies. His advisors manipulate the succession so that the emperor’s youngest son takes over under a regent. The civil war against the untried young emperor starts almost immediately. There are times when The Grace of Kings is hard to track. Men rise and fall. Armistices are signed and broken. I had to keep flipping back to the map at the beginning of the book for reference as the boundaries kept being redrawn.
Apart from Kuni’s antics, what I enjoyed most about The Grace of Kings was the interference of the countries’ gods. The eight gods go to war at the same time as the humans. The old emperor’s patron god is furious that the empire didn’t last more than a few decades. The gods of the conquered countries start to choose heroes and manipulate events to help those champions. Men find prophecies in fish, a statue saves a man’s life, and drown armadas. I was strongly reminded of the way the Greek gods would occasionally swoop on to the battlefields around Troy to bail out their favorites.
There are parts of The Grace of Kings that are written with language that reminded me of legends (lots of people doing things for three days and three nights), which might be irritating to readers who are looking for something a bit grittier. The chaotic plot might annoy others. I’ll admit that, at the beginning of the book, I wasn’t sure if I would continue the book because I wasn’t digging it. Once I got a bit further into the book, I started to get fascinated by shifting politics, the heavenly wrangling, and feminism. I ended up reading the whole thing in less than 24 hours; I just got hooked.