Friday, February 5, 2016

Chi SF- Grace of Kings

For the January meeting of the Chicago Speculative Fiction Community, we discussed “The Grace of Kings” (2015) by Ken Liu. The novel had been popping up on my radar a lot lately—first novel from a writer who's already done some stellar short work and translations, including the Hugo-winning “Three Body Problem” by Cixin Liu (no relation), which Phandemonium (and a few Chi-SF members) discussed back in November at Windycon.

“The Grace of Kings” is an epic fantasy drawing heavily on the late Warring States period in Chinese history (200ish BCE). Despite some supernatural/theological, steampunky, and otherwise fantastic elements, one the whole it reminded us much more of the geopolitical/historical vein of fantasy, as opposed to the magical or mythical. Notes on that distinction, as well as possible spoilers, below:

This is a sprawling novel, following a huge number of plots and characters. That contributed to one of our primary criticisms, which was that the rapid POV jumps caused us to lose plot momentum; we also found that the characters had widely varying depths, with many of the casts not capturing our imagination or emotional investment very well.

But some did! And this leads us to our second main critique: the massive tonal shifts constantly occurring in this novel. It made it hard to figure out how to read it. Some characters felt really fleshed-out and interesting, like Kuni & Jia's relationship, while others were clearly sketches, archetypes, or caricatures. Likewise, the novel would seem to be seeking a highly-realistic ruleset for a long time, with we readers extrapolating and emotionally investing accordingly—only to suddenly introduce hugely incredible plot devices, like the scene where Kuni's army rides a bunch of whales to victory all Shai-hulud style. It's hard to believe in the reality of supply lines and foot-army tactics in one sentence, and then be expected to believe in lava-rock-operated steam-submarines in the next. Shifting unexpectedly around on the “gritty-to-silly-continuum”, in other words.

We spent the greatest amount of time discussing the novel's relation to its historical antecedents, with some of us criticizing how closely the main plot and characters follow the Chu-Han Contention and related events; the overall plot and many of the characters have 1:1 correspondences. This led to a debate over the differences between “historical”, “fantasy inspired by history”, “fantasy inspired by other stories, literary or historical”, and “fantasy just ripping something off”.

Sulzer SF/F discussion.
The gorilla in the room with these discussions is Martin's “Song of Ice and Fire” and its relation to the War of the Roses—much looser than the parallels here, but in the ballpark. That discussion got us into talking about influence/homage/pastiche in fantasy general, and what difference (if any) there is between historical & literary lifting—Tolkien's work, for instance, though inventive, nonetheless often has a discernible source if you look into it. I also brought up Bujold's superb “Curse of Chalion”, which is heavily based on 15th century Iberian politics, and we talked about Turtledove's fiction a fair bit as well.

We also talked for a bit about the various cultural allusions and references here, from Sun-Tzu & Confucius to Homer & Ecclesiastes. I also kind of banged my head against some of the ethical/political systems at play here, trying to figure out what Liu wants us to consider true in-world. Particularly, a number of different characters believe in a very Great-Chain like hierarchy (something I have an interest in), and blame social ills on breaking from it. Ultimately it seems like Liu is not endorsing that, but the novel as a whole feels fairly ambivalent about meritocracy vs. a caste system, and about federalist/centralized power vs. independent states.

A lot the discussion of this book wound up situating “The Grace of Kings” on a continuum from “3-dimensional” works like Martin's to really poor “1-dimensional” works like, apparently, Kevin J. Anderson's “The Dark Between the Stars”.

We found the steampunky tech laughable. Weirdly, it could have worked if there was a lot more of it, if we felt like that was the universe we were living in—but reading a mostly non-fantastic military/historical story and then having bizarre, physics-defying tech show up intermittently didn't work. The gliders (well, glider, why didn't anyone try out such a successful military invention ever again?), the aforementioned ludicrous steam-submarines, and the airships. I did like the reality of air superiority—that felt like a realistic angle—but the actual explanation of the lighter-than-air gas collection and use (and the eagles that have helium bladders or something, weird) was too unbelievable. We are also deeply skeptical of “rowing” an airship with any kind of efficiency.
Animation of some wing patterns from science illustrator Eleanor Lutz.
It's not impossible to conceive of an "air oar" stroke that could move an dirigible forward,
but it seems like a pretty major engineering hurdle. Disbelief: UNSUSPENDED.

AN ASIDE: this “-punk” suffixation needs to stop. If the work doesn't have any kind of ethic/aesthetic related to punk, just, just stop.

We talked for a bit about the "world in miniature" approach to fantasy world-creation, where very different cultures etc. can exist in easy walking distance, as is the case here. "The Grace of Kings" has a pretty good map and uses it well for the plot. We e-readers (e-reader users?) lamented the difficulty of quickly referencing that.

The greatest strength of this novel, for me, and one we didn't get into much, is the way that women's involvement subtly ramps up throughout. The first half or so of the book is all but empty of visible female characters, excepting Jia, and follows a very masculine-centered conflict. Later in the book, we get increasing female presence and influence, and the tone shifts as well, focusing less on simplistic headbutting and more on complicated and fairly ambiguous policy decisions. Misogynistic language and attitudes are directly addressed in one Kuni's speeches, which is a very cool departure from the too-common stance that sexism is acceptable for "historical reasons" even in fantasy. I'm wondering where Liu is going with this in the rest of the series, since women's condition in this society is more commented on than actually changed.

Did I mention there are gods in this novel, taking an active hand in political affairs? We felt them to be overall very Greek, Iliad-esque. That tied in to our discussion, again, of the novel's relation to the historical figures it's based on, particularly Mata (based on Xiang Yu), and in turn led us to talk about the difference and blurriness between actual history, myth, tall-tales, and "invented myth" like Paul Bunyan or Clement Moore/Coca-Cola's involvement in the modern Santa Claus.

Win all the awards, dang it!
Almost all of us were very intrigued with Chatelain Pira's sub-plot, and it's indicative of the hectic nature of this novel that he is dispatched in a single sentence and without a glance back. I also really enjoyed General Marana's character & unexpected competence, and, again, he's just taken out in a single sentence.

By the way, the chatelain's long-form revenge, Marana's accountant-turned-master-strategist, sex issues, revolution, attempt at geopolitical realism--if you liked these bits, I highly recommend Seth Dickinson's "The Traitor Baru Cormorant" (2015); I've been suggesting it every chance I get. No knocks against Liu, but every moment I liked in "The Grace of Kings", I couldn't help noticing, I liked even more in "Baru Cormorant".

A good discussion, though our overall reaction was pretty mixed. There were a lot of facets to our debate over "historical" versus "fantasy" that I can't easily summarize: an interesting argument.

This discussion was sponsored by the letter (diacritic?) "cedilla".

 Next time, Chicago-SF will be discussing "The Just City" by Jo Walton. This will be at Capricon up in Wheeling, Saturday 2/13 at 1pm. If you're interested in double book-clubbing while at con, Phandemonium is also hosting a discussion on Guest of Honor Scott Lynch's "The Lies of Locke Lamora" earlier on Saturday.

1 comment:

  1. A comment on "steampunk." The term arose purely and simply because the first recognized steampunk novel, The Difference Engine, was co-authored by the originator of the cyberpunk subgenre, William Gibson. But the term is by now too fixed to change.