Review: The Grace of Kings

The Grace of Kings
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

2.5 Stars at best.

The Grace of Kings is an Asian medieval tale of both the history of the fantasy land of the Islands of Dara and of one man’s unlikely rise to power.

I like the idea of an Asian medieval fantasy epic. We have so many Western medieval epics that this book gives a fresh perspective. Because of this, I wanted to rate this book higher. BUT…

This book follows the actual history of China too closely. Other reviewers and readers might look at this book and go, ‘an Asian medieval story, that’s new’. Even I think this book feels like the Chinese version of Game of Thrones, characters in this story can and might die (but not with GoT’s level of culling). And that’s a good thing in my view. However, as a person with a good level of understanding of China’s history, I can recognise the links between this book’s plot and the Chu-Han contention in China’s history. That and other stories and tropes in China’s history. And this is not good. In my view, the story is extremely unimaginative and anti-creative because it’s just a copy and paste and ‘change all the names and places’ from China’s history type of job.

Here are a list of links:

– Spoiler alert for most of these –

In China’s History, the Warring States Period and the Qin Dynasty that followed matches with the Xana conquest and unification of the Islands of Dara. It also follows the same idea that this was the first unification of all the kingdoms. This is the ‘all under heaven’ trope, ??, as we say in Mandarin. As with this book and in real life, unification of all under heaven brought about good things for the whole empire as well as atrocities that were committed in order to unite the land. The Xana Emperor is really just Qin Shi Huang. Even the atrocities he committed are the same. Burying scholars alive? Been there, done that.

Kongfigi, the one true scholar, (I can’t spell his name because I was on the audiobook) is really Confucius. Even his teachings about harmony, the relationship between father and son, and the place of men and women are more or less similar in the book and in real life.

The scene where the the prime minister walks in with a deer and tells the boy emperor that it’s a horse, actually happened in real life. It’s such a prominent piece of history that the Chinese saying, ????, is based on this. It literally means “point to a deer and call it a horse“. This scene could have easily been changed or involve other animals or even with inanimate objects, but it wasn’t. This is probably the most prominent piece of copy and past in this book.

The female beauty sent to drive a wedge between Mata Zyndu and his uncle (the father figure) is similar to Diao Chan who was sent to drive a wedge between Lü Bu and his adopted father Dong Zhou (Three Kingdoms Period). In both cases, the father figure dies.

The overthrow of the Xana empire and rebel forces mirrors the downfall of the Qin Dynasty.

Mata Zindu is history’s Xiang Yu. Fictional Mata raised 800 men to follow him in joining the rebel cause, while real life’s Xiang Yu raised 8,000. Both were the de facto chiefs of the rebel forces, powerful warriors, and had the title of hegemony. After the rebels defeat the empire, both men split the empire arbitrarily, giving different lands to different rebel leaders. In real life this is known as the short lived Eighteen Kingdoms.

Kuni Garu is history’s Liu Bang. Both were given a small kingdom to rule over after the rebellion was successful. The Mata – Kuni rivalry is history’s Chu-Han contention, or the Xiang Yu – Liu Bang rivalry. Both fictional Kuni and real life Liu Bang beat their rival to capture the capital city of the empire first and topple the empire. Both of them were strict about telling their men not to kill innocent people. Both of their rivals got upset and tried to have them assassinated at a banquet with a sword dancer. Both of their rivals gave them pieces of land to their disadvantage. Need I write more? If you read the history on it, you will be able to see the links for yourself.

Ultimately, Kuni wins. In history, Liu Bang also won. Both men would go on to become the emperor and create a new empire that aimed to be benevolent and do the things the previous empire wasn’t able to do.

Lastly, the notions of benevolent rule, care for the common folk (?????), and overthrowing an ‘evil’ emperor, are common stories and tropes in Chinese literature. These aren’t bad to copy, I’m just pointing it out to those unfamiliar to Chinese culture.

– Spoilers end here –

Can you see why I was upset with this book? Once I saw the links between the plot and history, the book became boring. I could see how it was going to end before the ending came. Plus the first quarter of the book was very slow moving and dry. I went through the book thinking, ‘if I really wanted to read China’s history, I’d rather just go to Wikipedia and read from there’. Really, I’d rather read the actual history, since this book copied it so closely.

I’m not totally against the copy and paste style of books. I know there is ‘nothing new under the sun’, and that books will tend to copy and innovate based on their source materials. Even the Game of Thrones was based on England’s War of the Roses historical time period. However, just like GoT, history can be melded and shaped into something else. This could have been done here: different rivalries, subverted tropes, different endings. Instead, we got a blatant re-write of history. At least it was re-write with airships and narwhals.

Despite my rating and review, I have high hopes of this series. I sincerely hope Liu will run out of history to copy from and start making up new ideas. (Although running out of history is hard, because China’s history is very long and colourful.) I will read the next book for sure.

I am Singaporean Chinese
I read the audiobook

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