The Veiled Throne

Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty books are the best fantasy stories I almost never see anyone talking about, full stop. Yes, they have received positive reviews from outlets like NPR, but I very rarely encounter anyone who has read them, perhaps because in form they are so unlike most major fantasy novels currently available.

Set on Dara, a self-contained continent protected by the wall of storms and a pantheon of gods, the series begins with The Grace of Kings, which tells the story of the rise of Kuni Garu and his eventual triumph over his onetime friend, the Hegemon, Mata Zyndu. The second book, The Wall of Storms, appears set to turn this tale of banditry and adventure into one of courtly intrigue centered on Jia and Risana, Kuni Garu’s two principal wives. However, Liu completely upturns these expectations with the introduction of warlike Lyucu.

Under a previous dynasty the scholars of Dara discovered that the Wall of Storms intermittently opens, so the emperor Mapidere organized an expedition on enormous city ships in order to conquer this new land, called Ukyu-Gonde. Despite the apparent backwardness of the Lyucu, they nevertheless defeated the expedition and, under the leadership of Pekyu Tenryo, launched an invasion of Dara during the next opening of the Wall of Storms. This expedition seized the outlying islands of Dasu and Rui, but the forces of Dara turned them back when they attempted to invade the main island. This victory, won by the barest of margins, cost the people of Dara. Kuni Garu died, his first heir (Prince Timu, turned Emperor Thake) sacrificed himself as the bride of Tenryo’s successor Tanvanki, and the next in line, Princess Thera, engaged herself Takval of the Agon, the anscestral enemies of the Lyucu enslaved by Tenryo, and led an armada to Ukyu-Gonde.

Such is the situation in Dara when The Veiled Throne opens. Empress Jia holds the regency in Pan where she tries to maintain the delicate ten-year truce with the Lyucu while the emperor, her step-son Phyro, agitates for direct action. Timu tries to find accomodation for the people of Dara against their brutal Lyucu overlords, and Thera tries to stage a rebellion among the Agon.

The Veiled Throne actually starts with an extended flashback to Ukyu-Gonde before the Lyucu invasion of Dara. During the period of the Dara invasion, Goztan Ryoto had been one of the Lyucu women enslaved by the foreigners, and her “master” named her “Obedience.” However, Goztan was a plant, one of the women Tenryo persuaded to feign subservience in order to kill the men of Dara and so was rewarded by becoming one of the loyal thanes who would in time lead the invasion of Dara.

However, something unusual happened during her captivity. Goztan came to appreciate that not all men of Dara were abjectly evil. Eventually this led her to become particularly attached to one of the Dara slaves, Oga, even taking him to bed, despite her other five husbands.

Back in the contemporary timeline, Goztan is the leader of the moderate party in the Lyucu territory, preaching accomodations and even having her son Savo educated by an independent scholar of Dara. This is a capital offense, particularly when discovered by Goztan’s rival thane, Cutanrovo, who believes that the only good Dara is a dead Dara. This political conflict will kick off a chain of events that send Savo (also known by the Dara name Kinri Rito) spinning into exile on the mainland of Dara where he will be adopted first by the Widow Wasu, proprietess of The Splendid Urn, the greatest restaurant in Ginpen, and then by the Splendid Blossom Gang, a motley crew of vagabonds who wander Dara doing good deeds. It is at the Splendid Urn where he meets the beautiful and enigmatic Dandelion, a young woman who everyone seems to know the backstory of except him.

Events in Ginpen, and particularly a delightful culinary competition between The Splendid Urn and The Treasure Chest run by the awful Tiphan Huto that reads like an extended restaurant wars out of the TV show Top Chef, come to the foreground in the latter section of The Veiled Throne. This section culimates with the Splendid Blossom Gang’s true objective: the infiltration of the imperial laboratory and archive hidden near Ginpen. However, much like the first two books, the narrative actually whips between several discrete storylines that variously intersect in both themes and events, while each chapter is situated in time, with a countdown pointing toward the next opening of the Wall of Storms. Thus:

On Ukyu-Gonde, Thera establishes contact with the Agon and works to establish a joint society, even while needing to collaborate with her husband’s duplicitous uncle who might betray them to the Lyucu at any time.

In a secret base in the mountains, the emperor Phyro oversees the raising of Garinafins, enormous, flying, fire-breathing creatures that are one of the secrets to the Lyucu military supremacy. Phyro continually petitions the regent to build up an invasion of “Unredeemed Dara,” all the while dreaming of military glory.

In Pan, the capital of Dara, Empress Jia plays politics, holding the state together for an emperor with little experience or interest in governing, preserving a delicate peace, and making preparations that suggest she is not so oblivious to the need to reclaim the lost territories as Phyro might think. However, her secrecy leads to conflict with members of the court like the Farisight Secretary Zomi Kidosu, the daughter of a Dasu fishing family (Oga and Aki Kidosu), whose mother was killed during the Lyucu invasion.

The Dandelion Dynasty rejects many of traditional fantasy narrative beats. Each book spans years and many scenes feel like vignettes to a larger epic story that I once likened to the Chinese epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Sometimes this means a particular storyline will just get one short scene before skipping ahead several years, while others, like the restaurant wars described above, will get multiple lengthy chapters. Further, each individual scene conforms to the demands of its subject, with Liu seemingly pulling from inspirations as diverse as heists to a reality television show, to the Chinese ancient dialogues like Han Dynasty’s Discourses on Salt and Iron. Far from feeling uneven, though, these imbalances allow Liu to build in depth to the world and often to imbue it with playfulness and life.

Reading all of that, one might be forgiven for being overwhelmed. This book, much like the two that came before it, are a lot, and I often had to refer back to the dramatis personae to keep the relationships between the various characters straight. However, since the reviews of the first two books in the series are among my least favorite posts I have ever written here, I wanted to give this book its full due.

Ultimately, each of the three books to date follows a single compelling theme. The Grace of Kings is the simplest: it is the rise of power of Kuni Garu, the bandit who would become king. The Wall of Storms is a story about the clash of civilizations and the lengths people will go to in times of desparation. The Veiled Throne, in turn, is about negotiating cultural fusion, particularly when faced with the twin challenges of history and misinformation.

When I wrote about The Wall of Storms, I framed one of my comments as a way to get ahead of potential criticism, saying that Liu has a way of addressing contemporary issues in fiction. This was the wrong way to frame the issue. These books feel fresh exactly because Liu deftly weaves contemporary issues into the larger threads of the story. That is, he didn’t write a story about homosexual relationships, women in the military, bigotry, ethnic cleansing, standardized tests, refugee camps, or disability, but he did write a story with each of these elements. Similarly, the “silk-punk” technology that is a hallmark of these stories is a fanciful reimagination of, for instance, the technologies found in the treasure fleets created for the Yongle Emperor in the fifteenth century. Moreover, in bucking many story patterns typical of a lot of Sci Fi and Fantasy books, Liu is able to create a world that is more interesting, more vivacious, and more true to life than those in a lot of other books in the genre.

In short, The Veiled Throne is an excellent novel that only builds on the achievement of the earlier books. While there is so much going on that I sometimes found myself struggling to remember what had happened in earlier books, that mostly made me want to revisit them. My only complaint here is that we have to wait for the conclusion of the story, which, while written as a single book with The Veiled Throne, is being released under the title Speaking Bones in June 2022.

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My reading over this holiday has been David Graeber and David Wengrow’s fascinating The Dawn of Everything, which looks to overturn a lot of the conventional wisdom about the early history of human civilization and ask critical questions about how we became frozen in a broadly similar set of social structures. This is a book that gives a lot to think about.

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.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

Liu’s debut novel, the first in the Dandelion Dynasty trilogy is a revelation in the field of epic fantasy. Instead of being modeled on the tradition of Lord of the Rings (and The Wheel of Time and like stories), with reluctant or unlikely heroes destined for greatness going on a quest, Liu models his story on Chinese epics, telling the tale of an imperial dynasty, corrupt courtiers, vengeful couriers, devoted servants, and a man determined to help a realm that groans under the weight of the nobility. All the while, the gods, siblings who oversee the islands, meddle in human affairs and choose their champions.

On the archipelago of Dara there have historically been seven Tiro kingdoms, endlessly squabbling, until the kingdom of Xana conquered the other six. Instead of ruling wisely, the new emperor brutally suppressed opponents, ran roughshod over tradition, and laid out heavy taxes and impositions on the new subjects in order to create ever greater monuments to the emperor. But the emperor dies and rebellion breaks out, giving opportunity to the likes of Kuni Garu, the dandelion, and Mata Zyndu, the chrysanthemum. The two, who are the closest the story has to traditional protagonists could not be more dissimilar. Kuni Garu is a poor man from a poor family, who flirted with being a bandit and a local thug, before finding a calling with civil service, where he demonstrates both efficiency and an ability to inspire others to success. Despite the humble origins, Kuni promises his wife Jia that their life will always be interesting. Mata Zyndu is the scion of a noble house, an eight-foot tall unstoppable warrior with two pupils in each eye and a burning desire to avenge his family and his country for the wrongs suffered during the conquest. His loyalty is to traditional honor, traditional nobility, and glorious battle. The two come to declare themselves brothers.

Yet, fate and the gods scheme to drive them apart and fuel the continuation of wholesale slaughter until only one man remains standing.

This brief synopsis of the narrative doesn’t do justice to the rich tapestry that is The Grace of Kings that spans the length and breadth of the realm, a large number of characters, and dozens of years. Liu’s writing is beautifully formal in the style of epics, but is moving, the setting itself deeply conservative and the narrative optimistically progressive. Every character is flawed, but a precious few are irrevocably so. To wit, the straightforward and rigid Mata is a villain of sorts, but his motives are genuine and there is real hope that he could indeed be a hero, while the upstart Kuni makes mistakes and blunders but has a nobility of spirit that even Mata recognizes. Most of all, Liu doesn’t rely on fantasy’s traditional story structures where the reader learns about the world through the growth of the characters and increasing the complexity with each book, yet he is able to inject poignancy into the interactions between characters, particularly Kuni and his wives. Everyone is engaged in one schemes, even against those closest to them, but there is real affection. The Grace of Kings is a soaring epic that blends political intrigue, romance, honor, and gender roles. The gods intervene, but by indirectly meddling, encouraging people’s behavior rather than acting directly so as to keep their pact.

At the conclusion I don’t know where the story goes from here. The story is set for dynastic intrigue, but, if the first book is any indication, there is going to be something more ambitious than just that.

I loved The Grace of Kings and I highly recommend it for anyone who likes epic fantasy.