The Wall of Storms – Ken Liu

You know the world isn’t perfect, but you’ve never ceased to believe that it could be perfected.

Book two of The Dandelion Dynasty (see my writeup of book one) opens in the so-called Reign of the Four Placid Seas, with Kuni Garu, now Empereror Ragin, trying to stabilize his kingdom by advancing the careers of men and women with talent regardless of their backgrounds. For instance, there is a grand examination with tests designed to push talent to the top, but there are also subtle biases in the test, as one of the entrants, Zomi Kidosu, is determined to prove. Further complicating the Reign of the Four Placid Seas, the Emperor Ragin is walking a delicate tightrope, balancing old loyalties to the nobles who won him his throne and whose position is under attack from his wife Empress Jia, and balancing the position of his children, particularly the two with Empress Jia and the one with Consort Risana. There are periods of peace, but not everyone is satisfied.

As befits an epic of this style, the domestic intrigue is only the starting point. The Wall of Storms, named for a barrier of storms that circles around and protects Dara, takes a turn when a strange semi-nomadic people called the Lyucu suddenly appear from the north on massive city ships. Unlike the people of Dara who farm and live in cities, the land of the Lyucu come from a land of steppes, largely living in village groups and cultivating “garinafins,” enormous herbivorous horned creatures that fly and breathe fire. Their leader, Pékyu Tenryo, is a brutal warlord who conquered his homeland and firmly believes that Dara is to be his. What follows is a clash of civilizations that threatens to tear apart Dara, which is only just now beginning to recover from years of bloodshed.

This brief description does not do Liu’s accomplishment justice. The Dandelion Dynasty is a sprawling, lyrical “silkpunk” epic. Wrapped up in the larger story are individual narratives about struggling against a system, journeys of discovery, and questions of identity, acceptance, and how divinities interact with the people who revere them. In so many ways it is a celebration of intelligence, problem solving, and education.

I did have one particular observation, which is not a critique per se. The Wall of Storms has the bones of a Chinese epic and the trappings of steampunk action-adventure and the lining of courtly intrigue, but much of the tension and plot relies on addressing issues. First, The Wall of Storms repeatedly addresses the issue of gender equality, whether a woman can inherit, whether women should be in the highest positions of the bureaucracy, etc. Second, it addresses issues of homosexuality, albeit in the form of accepting and normalizing it rather than making it a struggle. Third, issues of social inequality come to the forefront. In this way The Wall of Storms feels like a book written to give to one’s daughter. I mean this to be a compliment and I agree with every position taken, but worry that in this current political climate it might be unfairly called a book that is just SJW-drivel. The Wall of Storms is so much more than that, a clever, engaging, and thoughtful, not to mention fun and different fantastical epic. Start with The Grace of Kings, but The Wall of Storms is a more than satisfactory sequel.

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