Epic in scope but the narrative style just didn’t work for me.
I did not finish this book. I read over half, my personal requirement before DNFing a book.
2/5 10/25 possible score
Plot – 2(Weak)
Characters – 2(Weak)
Setting/World Building – 3(Fine)
Writing Style – 2(Weak)
Heart & Mind Aspect – 1(Very Weak)
The Islands of Dara were conquered by one emperor. When that emperor dies, the rest of the islands decide to rise up against the empire that controlled them. Men that should have been leaders before the former empire took control, want revenge, and their rule back. Other men see an opportunity to create something for themselves, to take advantage of the opportunity of upheaval. The main story focuses on Kuni, a common born man, that makes a name for himself, by using his intelligence and quick talking to outsmart his opponents, and Mata, a would be king, with strength and combat ability unparalleled. When these two become friends, the only thing that can stop them, might just be themselves.
What is good:
Ken Liu creates a detailed world with Dara. It is intricate and has a host of many rulers and dignitaries that rule. The god pantheon was my favorite part of the story. The gods are very reminiscent of Greek gods, but in Dara the gods can only give prophecies and interfere indirectly with human affairs. The gods like to pick favorite mortals and try to influence events to see if their mortal can best their fellow god’s mortal. Dara is very reminiscent of Chinese folklore and myths. This aspect of the book comes through amazingly well and the addition of eastern phrases and sayings was very poignant.
What I didn’t like:
I really wanted to love this book and it is one of the few books this year that I bought right after release. I had a credit for the audiobook, so I decided to grab that, and I think that was my first mistake. The audiobook is extremely difficult to follow without a map or seeing the names of characters. Because there are so many characters, I just could not remember all the minor character’s names, and remember what they did in previous chapters. Not being familiar with Oriental naming conventions was a hindrance.
The Grace of Kings reads just like a history book. I was patient at the beginning, thinking that all these information dumps would end soon, and we would get a tighter narrative, but the style of writing was the same through-out the entire book. The style just did not work for me. I have a degree in history and I have read many history books. I read fantasy to read about strange worlds and compelling characters that must make impossible decisions. This book was just so similar to so many droll history books that I’ve read. It is a bird’s eye view of the world and characters. It reminded me so much of a Japanese documentary that I watched on Netflix, where “this guy did this, and this guy did that.”
Never did I really feel like I was reading an actual story about characters I could connect to. At all times it was the author telling me this story. It reminded me of an oral story that has been passed down from generation to generation, less character development, and more “this and that.” The characters were kept at arms length through the entire story. As soon as I started to get into a character’s story, the point of view would change to a character I haven’t met yet, and just did not care about.
I appreciate the world building that is in this book but world building without character building is worthless. Why should I care about this world if I don’t care about the characters? In the first half of the book, about 300 pages, I bet the main two characters, had 75 pages of development. The rest of the 225 were about random leaders, of random parts of the islands, just one big info dump that read like a wikipedia article. I just feel that Liu gave us too much, too quickly. If the world was discovered through the series, through the characters, instead of dumped in our lap, this book would have worked so much better for me.
This book really wasn’t for me but other people seem to love it. If you are alright with the bird’s eye-view of events unfolding, and a narrative that focuses more on the big picture, than the details, then this might be for you. The actual prose was written well and I like some of Ken Liu’s short works, but The Grace of Kings just did not work for me. Guy Gavriel Kay does a much better job of creating a historical fantasy book with characters we can love. If I wanted to read a book that read like a history book, I would have read a history book, and actually learned something about real China.