“I was enraged by the weight of the outmoded commands of our ancient heroes, but now I miss the comfort of their words of wisdom and tales of courage. Try as I might, I cannot cast off the pull of our collective memory. Mere survival isn’t enough. A people cannot be a people if they don’t know where they come from, if they can’t fear and trust the gods of their parents, if they’ve been cut off from the stories of their past.”
“Honor, pride, the commands of our ancestors–these are not unalterable laws of nature we must submit to. History is like the string of kite. It tethers us to the ground, but it is also what allows us to fly.”
“There are no whole stories, only fragments that suit the purpose of the moment,” said Jia.
Earlier this summer I finished reading what I believe to be one of the best—and most under-appreciated—fantasy series of recent vintage.
(There are genre issues with this declaration. I have been more impressed recently by science fiction than fantasy, and Liu’s infusion of a steampunk ethos might call into question the fantastical of these books. However, I have interpreted this series as epic fantasy if the genre’s story structure developed out of Medieval Chinese literature like Romance of the Three Kingdoms rather than out of European literature like the Arthur stories, so fantasy it is. For what it’s worth, Liu himself credits stories like Beowulf as inspiration and rejects sweeping generalizations about genre, while acknowledging that The Grace of Kings is based on the historical period about the rise of the Han Dynasty.)
The series opened in The Grace of Kings, introducing the land of Dara where the emperor Mapidere of Xana had conquered the six separate Tiro kingdoms only to be overthrown by the unstoppable warrior Mata Xyndu and the clever thief Kuni Garu. Their victory is short-lived and they are plunged again into war until Kuni Garu emerges victorious. However, this grand drama proves to be the prologue to another, more existential conflict.
The Wall of Storms, the second book in the series, is named after a meteorological curiosity—a literal wall of storms that surrounds Dara. However, in the time of Mapidere, scholars divined that the wall opens at predictable intervals and thus the emperor of Dara dispatched monumental city ships (modeled on the Treasure Ships of Zhang He’s fleets) through the wall in order to conquer the land of Ukyu and Gonde. The people of this land, including both the dominant Lyucu and the now-subservient Agon, are nomadic herders who live by training and riding enormous, fire-breathing, flying herbivores called garinafins. The result is a complete clash of cultures that allowed the Lyucu under the leadership of Pekyu Tenryu to defeat the invaders and claim the City Ships for an invasion of Dara that reaches a climax in the Battle of Zathin Gulf where Kuni Garu defeated the invaders at the cost of his own life. Nevertheless, the Lyucu continue to hold the islands of Dara and Rui under the leadership of Tenryu’s daughter Tanvanaki and her consort, Kuni Garu’s son Prince Timu, while the Princess Thera, Kuni’s second heir, married Takval, an Agon, and set off through the wall of storms in order to cut off Lyucu reinforcements before they could set out.
Such is the situation when The Veiled Throne, the direct predecessor of The Speaking Bones opens. Although these two books were published separately, Liu has said that he intended them to be read together as the final installment of the series, and it is easy to see why. Where each of the previous two novels had in one way or another overturned expectations, Speaking Bones picks up where The Veiled Throne leaves off in terms of plot threads and themes.
The conclusion of this sage unfolds along five interlocking story-lines: three in Dara, two in Ukyu-Gonde. Any attempt to summarize these five threads would be inadequate without the context of the rest of the series, so I won’t even try. The plots are in much the same vein as the earlier books: clever inventions, deep moral debates, and political machinations, all interspersed with moments of whimsy.
Instead, I wanted to highlight what I see as one of the strengths of the series. Liu’s characters usually have a clear sense of purpose. This is not to say that they always know what to do. Often, they do not. Nor is that purpose always honorable. Rather, without turning each character into a caricature, Liu draws each one in sharp lines that make the different collisions work in interesting ways. Sometimes this looks like a staunch advocate for genocide colliding with a ruthless warrior who believes that those actions are anathema to their way of life. Other times it looks like a greedy and selfish pirate getting his comeuppance. Still others, it is the child of the Lyucu finding a home in a monastery dedicated to repairing the harm made in the world.
But this feature can be seen most clearly in a central political conflict.
Empress Jia, Kuni Garu’s wife and mother of two emperors who handed off the throne in service of their people, is a renowned herbalist and cunning political strategist who favors an incrementalist approach. She carefully cultivates plans to destroy the Lyucu utterly, but those plans are indistinguishable from appeasement. Likewise, her political decisions that reject militarism seem designed to keep power in her own hands.
Facing her is the young idealist Emperor Phyro (the son of Risana, another of Kuni Garu’s wives). Phyro chafes at any delay and yearns for quick and decisive action that will liberate unredeemed Dara. Jia believes that Phyro may make a good emperor, but not yet and not if he falls prey to the dangers of violence.
What makes this conflict interesting and, at times, completely tragic, is that both, ultimately, are working toward the same end. In a recent Reddit AMA, Liu noted that: “[Phyro’s] the sort of boss I’d love to work for, a charismatic leader who really believed in the cause and wouldn’t ask his followers to make a sacrifice he himself wasn’t prepared to make.” He’s also more mature than Jia realizes. By contrast, Jia is an extremely competent leader for Dara, but she’s also someone with a significant amount of blood on her hands. She can speak in terms of ideals, but only if you look at the big picture.
The central theme of this debate is the term mutagé, which the glossary defines as “a dedication to the welfare of thee people as a whole, one that transcends self-interest or concern for family and clan.” Jia and multiple other characters invoke this ideal repeatedly, with Jia defiantly claiming that she regrets nothing despite the costs. She brilliantly helps lay the groundwork for a sustainable system (in the same AMA, Liu admits that he set out to write the origin of the Han Dynasty in a fantasy series and ended up writing a story about America), but neither is she the only person practicing mutegé, and her answers are not necessarily right. Just as it is inadequate to simply expect everyone to “do good,” it is also insufficient to expect one person to have all the answers.
Ending epic series is hard—the reasons vary by series, but in thinking about this I’m reminded of other authors who bogged down as they closed on an end—but Liu lands this one. From the very first installment this series was measured in decades, so it is only natural that the ending does the same. Likewise, the same writing style that allowed him to tackle so many other contemporary issues allows a transition to themes of legacy, history, and change that fits within the existing structure without coming across as preachy. As an ancient historian, I was particularly struck by one exchange about anxieties about whether or not the classics can change:
“The classics will be fine,” he said. “They have always adapted to changing readers. The Morality that Kon Fiji wrote and that Poti Maji glossed was not the same text that Master Zato Ruthi tried to teach me and that my father so gleefully reinterpreted. The logograms may remain the same, but the context is constantly shifting. If they continue to be meaningful to us, it’s because we have, without recognizing, translated them.”
“What?” Zen Kara looked at him as though he were mad.
“I believe the classics have survived because they are self-modernizing, self-translating. The ephemeral and the fashionable are washed away by the relentless pounding of time’s tides. Only hard shoals of deep wisdom could withstand the cycles–not because they’re unchanging, but because they are without vanity, without affectation, without pretension, humble enough to embrace new interpretations without yielding their essential nature. New readers are like the hermit crabs, sea urchins, anemones, snails, and seaweeds that colonize a tidal pool–only by first filling the bare rock of the classics with the colors of their own experience could the endless forms of meaning in the grandness of Life then blossom in the interaction of reader and text. The classics are always-already in translation.”
In short, this is a brilliant series that is by turns beautiful, clever, profound and filled with adventure. Liu created a rich and vibrant world that speaks to the present moment in the best ways even while exploring how such a world came about. These are long books, but they’re worth every page.
The combination of unexpected work and a writing funk from earlier this summer conspired to keep me from writing about books in the past few months. Since my last post on The Immortal King Rao, I have finished reading twelve books in addition to Speaking Bones. Four were non-fiction: Melissa Aronczyk’s Branding the Nation, Kristin Kobes du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, Michael Twitty’s Koshersoul, and Kelly Baker’s The Gospel According the Klan. Two were installments of the excellent graphic novel Saga. The two pieces of literary fiction I read in this period were James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, which is a beautiful piece of writing but one in which the story didn’t land with me the way some of his other pieces do, and Jen Egan’s The Candy House, which is yet another novel about a dystopian world created by social media. The Candy House had its moments and a nice literary trick of leading the reader from one point of view to the next through these oblique connections, but I didn’t understand the buzz around this book. Maybe I’m just too much of a rube to appreciate Literature. I also read the second book in Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series, Dead Lions, and once more thought that he writes a cracking spy thriller and I can’t see anyone else but Gary Oldman as the central character. Then there was Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow, which is a nice twist on a pretty formulaic gods-meet-humans story. Rounding out this list is the final trilogy in James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series. I am now reading Saara El-Arifi’s The Final Strife.