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.

Standalone sci-if and fantasy – Recommendations

Last week I published a list of fantasy and sci-fi series that I recommend. This post follows that one up with set of recommendations of standalone (or near-standalone) books.

First and Last Men, Olaf Stapledon

Both this and the next recommendation are the work of a British professor of Medieval Philosophy writing in the 1920s and 1930s, who decided to eschew academic publications and instead write books designed to bring these philosophies to a wider audience. First and Last Men is the ultimate longue durée history of the human race, covering ten thousand years. Humans advance from their present form and adapt until they are wholly unrecognizable, with societies developing in conjunction with the available resources and environmental needs.

Starmaker, Olaf Stapledon

Stapledon’s other novel is an interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Visions of Piers Plowman, where a man, on a walk after fighting with his significant other, has a out of body experience that takes him to a series of alien civilizations and to ever higher planes of consciousness until reaching divine revelation. Reviewed here.

Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson

One of my favorite near-future dystopian novels. The United States has been broken down into a landscape where every corporation, church, and gated neighborhood functions as its own country, there is an digital universe built with megachurch money that can be tapped into, and there is a conspiracy that wants to use an archeological find to enslave humans. Hyperinflation is rampant and pizza delivery is operated by the mafia, and if your pizza doesn’t arrive in 20 minutes, you are allowed to kill the driver and take his stuff. Law and order are enforced at the point of a sword. Enter our hero, Hiro Protagonist, delivery driver, elite hacker, and expert swordsman…who lives in a storage unit. The world is a mess and he must save it, all the while trying to protect the teenage girl Y.T. and to stop Raven, a nuclear-armed Aleutian harpooner with a grudge against the United States.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon

In his middle years the narrator returns to his childhood home for a funeral and finds himself drawn to the Hempstock farm, where, in a flash, he remembers something that happened there when he was seven. This particular story tugs at the nostalgia strings about how one remembers childhood and about things that children know that adults don’t, begs the question of not whether, but how people change as they age, and how worth is adjudged. There is whimsy, there is sadness, and there is pettiness.

Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimon

The Antichrist has been born and the end is nigh! But the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley [formerly Crawley] have come to quite like their lives on earth in a way that their otherworldly brethren just can’t appreciate. Crowley, for instance, can’t make them understand that jamming the London freeway or killing the phone lines causes greater mayhem in the world than the corruption of a single priest. As a result they agree to keep an eye on the little guy and prevent him from choosing between good and evil. However, a mixup in the birthing ward means that the real Antichrist is on the lam. All of this has been foreseen by Agnes Nutter, but her prophecies are of little use. Bedlam and hilarity ensue.

American Gods, Neil Gaimon

America is multi-cultural. A place where cultures from around the world–and their deities–have come and made a home. A not-so-chance encounter upon his release from prison after the death of his wife launches Shadow into this world as the bodyguard to Mr. Wednesday. Once there he discovers that there is a war brewing between the old gods and the new gods of television and pop culture, but it is unclear whether the old gods will form a common front to preserve their way of life.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed

The hero is supposed to be young, fit, and still learning about himself. Ahmed inverts this, so our protagonist is Dr. Adoulla Makhslood, a retired ghoul hunter who likes drinking cardamum tea. Along with some old friends and young assistants Adoulla tries to combat the increasingly frequent ghoul outbreaks and thus is drawn into a political revolution brewing in the palace over control of the Throne of the Crescent Moon–or its earlier association with serpents. Some of the tropes are familiar, but the setting is not just flavor, as the story is much more influenced by Middle Eastern stories known to Western Audiences from, for instance, Arabian Knights, rather than the knightly tales of Western Europe.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

Reviewed here, this is a fantasy constructed along the lines of traditional Chinese epic. It is beautifully formal and weaves a conservative culture and style with a progressive narrative to create something that is new in a genre that is so steeped in tropes. The result was a breath of fresh air. Technically, The Grace of Kings is the first in a series, but it can absolutely be read as a standalone work.

The Redemption of Althalus, David and Leigh Eddings

Unlike the last two on this list, Redemption is in a lot of ways old-school fantasy, an epic showdown between sibling deities, one of whom upholds life and one that seeks to consume it. Each side has its champions and paragons who square off against their opposite number. Neither the story nor the characters are particularly brilliant, but the book is fun and riddled with clever or entertaining set pieces and has the grace to condense the equivalent of an entire epic fantasy series in a single thick book.

The Postmortal, Drew Magary

Another near-future dystopian novel, Magary asks what would happen if there was a cure found that stops the aging process at the point it is received. Diseases still happen and a violent death is possible, but aging stops. What happens to marriages if “til death do you part” starts to look like an eternity? Will the cure be legal? Will it be regulated? Will it be given to children? Will there be a violent backlash? Will the social contracts that keeps society together stay in place? Probably not.

July 2015 Reading Recap

I read a lot again in July, quickly falling back into old habits of spending muggy evenings just reading and, for most of the month, felt pretty well-balanced as a result. Part of the reason I was able to read so much was that, for the first time in a while, I read a significant amount of science fiction and fantasy and fewer literary fiction novels. In many ways the situation gave me flashbacks to years gone by.

Literary Fiction
Romance of the Three Kingdoms v.1, Luo Guanzhong
Reading this, the first of two volumes of the medieval Chinese epic that retold the dissolution of the Han Dynasty around 200 CE. The translation I used is quite dated and the romance is particularly stilted at times, with action usually being said to happen rather than narrated. Nevertheless, the story itself is engaging, as the it narrates the intrigues between the decadent house of Wu in the south, the wily and ruthless Cao Cao of Wei, and the noble and righteous Liu Bei of Shu. I had fond memories of the video game Dynasty Warriors as I was reading, but this is not a book I would necessarily recommend for anyone who is not already invested in the endeavor.

The Fortune of War, Patrick O’Brian
The continuing adventures of Aubrey and Maturin take them to Boston at the outset of The War of 1812 and includes the naval duel between the H.M.S. Shannon and U.S.S. Chesapeake. The bulk of this story takes place with the two men scheming to escape captivity after their capture. The writing of this book is on the upper end of O’Brian’s novels thus far, but it still tends to bog down when he is not writing about sailing. I didn’t find this arc nearly as tedious as the ones involving life back home in England, but it was still not my favorite. Still, I appreciate O’Brian’s dedication to particular types of historical accuracy.

The Emperor’s Tomb, Joseph Roth
This novel continues the story of the Trotta family in Austria that was begun by The Radetsky March, though the protagonists of the two share little beyond their name. This story uses World War One as a fulcrum and tells of the the declining fortune of the Trottas after the war as all their ventures fail. However, the story suffers from many of the moralistic problems of the the former novel without the charm. In particular, Roth goes out of his way to emphasize the averageness of the the Trotta family in the first, showing them to be swept along by forces entirely beyond their control even while they make decisions. In this one there are many of the issues, but without the same setup. The result is that within this particular narrative the characters, none of whom are particularly nice or endearing, simply try ineffectually and fail. Perhaps this particular feature of the Trotta family is meant to carry over from one story to the next, but one would expect there to be some reminder if that was the case. The result is a dreary, dull read and not a particularly good story, though the crushing weight of the environmental factors remain constant in both.

Fantasy and Science Fiction
Fool Moon, Jim Butcher
The second book of the Dresden Files novels continues the adventures of the Wizard/Private Eye Harry Dresden. As one may guess by the campy title, this on involves were-wolves. I’m not yet sure how I feel about the series. The novels are pulpy and campy, but addictive. The first two also have the feel of an author playing around, honing a craft, and not yet with a larger story arc in mind. I will read at least one more, but, after that, who knows.

The Rebirths of Tao, Wesley Chu
Speaking of addictive, this The Rebirths of Tao concludes this trilogy that began with the Lives of Tao. True to form, each installment adds layers, both to the narrative and the global conflict that threatens the existence of the human race. Chu’s writing remains snappy, clever, fast-paced, and, above all, fun, but just wasn’t as tight as in the previous two novels. Nevertheless, Rebirths is a fitting conclusion to the series.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov
I am somewhat ashamed how long it took me to read Foundation, a classic text in the genre. This is the story of the decline and fall of a galactic empire, which has stood for millennia. A scholar named Hari Seldon has perfected “Psychological History,” which is the history of the future as dictated by economic and sociological principles. Despite the imperial court being convinced of its invincibility, Seldon has become convinced of that the empire will collapse and be followed by thirty thousand years of barbarism–but the time can be reduced to one thousand, if he is allowed to create a galactic encyclopedia on a distant world. The encyclopedia itself is a feint, but Seldon has predicted that the world will restore civilization, so long as they do not come to rely on individual heroism. There is a general lack of strong narrative arc or dynamic characters, but the ideas in this book are provocative and worth thinking about, even though the specific technology (nuclear) is a product of its own age.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams
Another book that I meant to have read some time ago, started once, and just never got back to. Adams had some wonderful backs and forths and observations, but his style of witty, clever nonsense that sometimes defies any sort of narrative sense just isn’t really my thing, at least not anymore. I may read the second book in the series for completion’s sake, but I didn’t like DGHDA as much as a lot of more recent books or Hitchhiker’s Guide. The preoccupation with antiquated computers also seemed stilted.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu
Reviewed here, Liu’s first novel in his epic fantasy trilogy is a soaring epic modeled on Chinese epic rather than western quest stories. I loved this book and it was pretty easily my favorite read of the month.

Nonfiction
Palmyra and its Empire Richard Stoneman
A somewhat dated book that I suspect I read once many years ago, I picked this one up again because of the disappointing news coming out of Palmyra. As a BMCR reviewer put it, this book combines relatively popular history narratives about Zenobia with much denser narrative and argumentation about Palmyra and its role in the Roman frontier. The feeling that I had read the book before took some of the wind out of my sails and I don’t find myself quite as intrigued by Roman history as I once did, but this is still a worthwhile read.

The Bagel Maria Balinska
Reviewed here, Balinska traces the history of the bagel from the fork that divided the bread from its Christian counterpart in medieval Poland, through its immigration to America as a ethnic Jewish food, its role in the labor movement around the turn of the century, and finally through its conquest of America as a ubiquitous breakfast food. There is a larger story than the narrow one Balinska tells in the second half of the book, but the simplistic story works well enough and should I ever find myself teaching US History for my supper, this is a book that I will use in my teaching.

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.