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Literature / The Grace of Kings

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The Grace of Kings is a 2015 "silk punk" epic fantasy novel by Ken Liu and the first book in the Dandelion Dynasty trilogy. The islands of Dara were once independent city states but were unified into one kingdom by the tyranical first emperor Mapidere. Mapidere's death spurs a rebellion against the imperial regime, in which two men rise in power, the pragmatic Lovable Rogue Kuni Garu and the grimly honorable Blood Knight Mata Zyndu. Despite their diametrically different personalities, the two become best friends, but as the rebellion gains success, they eventually become rivals. Within this personal and ideological struggle, the gods of Dara take sides.

The sequel, The Wall of Storms, was released in 2016.

The novel contains examples of:

  • Action Girl: Gin Mazoti.
  • Bald Women: Gin Mazoti shaves her head, initially to hide her gender, but later as a reminder that she is not an ordinary woman.
  • Culture Chop Suey: The culture of the Dara States is mostly Ancient China with a bit of Japan thrown in, but there's also an offshoot with a Pacific Islander-inspired culture and there's some aspects evocative of both Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome (the pantheon of scheming deities; the use of the titles Hegemon and Princeps; some of the literary quotations).
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: All over the place. Mata Zyndu tries to stamp it out, Kuni Garu harnesses it for his own ends.
  • Dark Fantasy: Quite: it's considerably grimmer than one might expect if familiar with Ken Liu's short stories - which are not necessarily happy on their own, often being somewhat tragic... but not as bleak and certainly not as violent as the novel. It is basically what A Song of Ice and Fire would have been like if it were firmly grounded in Chinese and East Asian influences and not based on English/European history and culture (although Liu actually avoids Fantasy Counterpart Culture tropes to a larger extent than Martin). It's got few overt supernatural elements (well, except the thing with the gods, quite a few of whom are jerkasses, and their personifications, but it is a low-magic world), deals mostly with human conflict and quite a few political machinations, has a good heaping of Grey-and-Grey Morality and few wholly sympathetic characters. It may be somewhat less grim overall, but that's not saying much against the ASOIAF standard, and one area where Liu can comfortably compete with Martin is the "Unceremoniously Killing Off Named Characters With At Least Some Screen Time" department.
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  • Decadent Court: Pan, the capital of Emperor Mapidéré and his son Emperor Erishi. Much less so under Emperor Ragin, but it still has shades of it.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Kuni Garu's rogueishness and good heart is illustrated by his first appearance. He persuades his best friend to cut school again to go to a parade, and as Rin indicates, these escapades always end in Rin being beaten by their teacher and Kuni managing to talk his way out of being punished. However, when the parade turns into a failed assassination attempt, Kuni saves Rin's life, shielding him with his body while hot oil rains from the sky.
    • Mata's character is encapsulated in his introductory chapter, which details how his aristocratic family was slaughtered on Mapidere's orders, and how he grew up under a Training from Hell regimen instituted by his uncle, so that the two could eventually take revenge. What cements Mata's character is the fact that what he hates about Mapidere is not so much the cruelty shown to his family, but that Mapidere took away power from aristocrats in favor of meritocracy.
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  • Evil Chancellor: Emperor Erishi had two of 'em in Lugo Crupo and Goran Pira.
  • Expy: With the Whole Plot Reference of the novel to actual Chinese history, there are a few characters based on historical figures, but it's really blatant with Mapidéré, who is a clear expy of Qin Shi Huang, down to him constantly touring the realm, ordering the burning of scrolls and the mutilation of scholars (disputed in the case of the historical template, but stated as factual history for Mapidéré), constructing many fortifications and a "road" system (the Great Tunnels) and at least initiating the project of his sanity-defying mausoleum.
  • Extra Eyes: Mata has double-pupiled eyes, inspired by a legend regarding his historical inspiration, Xiang Yu.
  • The Extremist Was Right: Although he disagrees with the cruelty with which he ruled, Kuni believes that Mapidere's goal of unifying the Dara states was a good one and wants to maintain/continue this, but in a manner that is not oppressive and betters the lives of the common people.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: As per Liu, somewhat averted to avoid oriental tropes. While the plot is heavily borrowed from historical events in Chinese history and there's other elements evocative of an Asian setting, there's a deliberate effort at avoiding cultural terms (i.e. the characters use "eating sticks" rather than "chopsticks"), and the geography is completely different than China. Additionally, while Mapidere is inspired by China's first emperor, the aspect of a tiny island conquering the region using advanced weaponry and promulgating its cultural superiority is evocative of Imperial Japan. Another Japanese parallel comes in the islands' ancient history, where a less technologically advanced aboriginal race were conquered, displaced and to some extent assimilated by a 'civilized' migrant race from overseas. Finally, whilst the map provided in the book is oriented West, orient it North and a resemblance to Ireland in terms of geography becomes obvious. An Irish parallel could also be drawn with the Tiro system of kings (though this is also based on China's Warring States period).
  • Foregone Conclusion: Once you learn that the novel is inspired by the Chu-Han contention and figure out who is who, it's pretty clear that Kuni is going to win. Even without the historical inspiration, early in the book, Kuni is compared to a dandelion and Mata to a chrysanthemum, and the series title is the "Dandelion Dynasty", not the "Chrysanthemum Dynasty"...
    • Zig-zagged a fair bit in the sequel. Ultimately, most of the same results as in actual history occur, but some, such as Gin/Han Xin's death, happen in very different ways and others, such as Kuni/Liu Bang dying in the Lyucu/Xiongnu invasion, are substantially different.
  • Four-Star Badass: Quite a few: Gin Mazoti, Kindo Marana, Tanno Namen.
    • The Zyndu family have been such for generations, and a desire to follow in his ancestors' footsteps is a major part of Mata's initial arc.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Luan Zya.
  • Healing Herb: Kuni's wife, Jia, is an expert on these.
  • Heroic Seductress: Princess Kikomi tries to become this. It doesn't end well.
  • Honor Before Reason: Mata's tendencies toward this, and more significantly, his frustration that other people do not, is one of the things that causes his slide into tyranny.
    • In a more humorous example, the poor sap who ends up being named king of reunited Rima's insistence on following the precepts of the ancient sage Kon Fiji exactly make it hilariously easy for Gin Mazoti to defeat him.
  • Lady of War: Largely averted; after being named Marshal of Dasu, Gin Mazoti begins wearing dresses, but she also keeps her head shaven and does not show any particular interest in traditionally feminine things.
  • Large and in Charge: Mata is at least eight feet tall.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Plenty of them, but especially Kuni and later Jia.
  • Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy: Gin Mazoti and her friend/lover Luan Zya fit this contrasting pairing. Gin disguised herself as a boy when younger and continues to shave her head and wear masculine dress as an adult. While she is very well-read on military strategy, she's characterized by being a very hands-on military leader with an emphasis on dirty tricks picked up from growing up on the streets. In contrast, Luan Zya was (briefly) was disguised as a girl as a boy, and grew up pampered in an aristocratic family. Despite their being stripped of their holdings, Zya maintains the wide-ranging education he received as a boy as well as somewhat affected court manners, and as an adult, is a Non-Action Guy whose military contribution is in the form of gadgetry and war-room strategy.
  • Mukokuseki: In a rare literary example of this, despite the China-inspired history and culture, many characters seem to look like this, being described as having light-hair and eyes. The related appearance tropes also come into play, as there is a group of tanned people with blond hair and blue eyes as well as one of dark-skinned people who have green eyes.
  • Outside-Context Problem: Mapidere started out as a prince of the tiny island state of Xana, which never got much respect from the rest of Dara. Then, a Xanan scholar discovered how to apply the principle of paper lanterns to make lighter-than-air airships. Once these were weaponized, they couldn't be touched by conventional armies and Mapidere used them to take over the other Dara states. Later on, this is reversed when battle kites are invented, which enable soldiers to take down airships.
  • The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: As a young man, Kuni is described as a "gangster", and while he was definitely a n'er-do-well and mooch, he never actually does anything gangstery (i.e. extortion, violence, etc.). The closest he gets is one scene where he's pressed about paying a bar tab and Kuni responds in a threatening manner- but rather than offering "protection" as a gangster would be expected to do, he instead points out that the liveliness of he and his friends helps bring in and keep customers, and their presence dissuades troublemakers from causing trouble. Later on, Kuni does become an actual bandit, but still a friendly one who aims to completely avoid deaths and injuries- and most of his ideas of what banditry involves come from fictional books about noble bandits he read in school.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Mata starts out as a heroic figure, but displays contempt for women/"feminine pursuits" and his primary issue with Mapidere's rule was how it displaced the old aristocracy and replaced them with "lowly bureaucrats".
  • Psmith Psyndrome: Early in the novel, Kuni crashes a party claiming to be Fin, a wealthy local nobleman. When it's pointed out that the real Fin has already arrived, Kuni then claims that he's Fin's cousin Phin and purses his lips to illustrate the (nonexistent) difference in pronunciation. Granted, there is a character named Phin in the novel (Mata's uncle) so the two actually are different names.
  • Red Right Hand: Played with. Mata has double-pupiled eyes and is like eight feet tall, suggesting an appearance bordering on Humanoid Abomination. While Mata and his uncle think of his eyes and build as representing his foresight and ties to the heroes of old, as he becomes increasingly unsympathetic, they instead are a mark of his Obviously Evil-ness (even though Mata thinks of himself as a good guy).
  • Refuge in Audacity: Kuni Garu and his followers essentially live and breathe this trope.
    • On a meta-level, you could say the entire plot is this. If you're going to rip off actual history, you may as well do so in a way that makes it very blatant that it was never meant to be anything but. Thus, a plot that's basically the fall of the Qin Dynasty, the Chu-Han Contention and the subsequent birth of the Han Dynasty, just transposed into a fantasy world.
  • Significant Green-Eyed Redhead: Jia.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Lampshaded. "It was a cliché for a beautiful woman to complain about being cursed with beauty, Kikomi knew, but just because it was a cliché didn't mean it wasn't true."
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Graceful dancer Risana is the girly girl to Gin's tomboy.
  • Visionary Villain: Despite his ruthless methods, Mapidere had admirable goals, wanting to end the continual wars among the island states and bring peace to the region, achieving respect for his homeland in the process.
  • Wise Old Turtle: Lutho, one of the members of the pantheon, has the sea turtle as his "pawi" (totem) and is the god of fishermen, divination, mathematics, and knowledge, and in practice basically the good Trickster God counterpart to another god in the pantheon, Tazu, who is the god of chaos and chance and is rather malevolent. Lutho, like the other gods, manipulates humans behind the scenes to achieve his desired (benevolent) ends, and in one instance plays the role of Old Master to one character, an intellectual master-strategist, and gifts him with a magical Great Big Book of Everything. The reader is clued into the fact that the wise old man is Lutho, partly because he's described as looking rather like a turtle.


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