The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu (The Dandelion Dynasty #1)
Two men rebel together against tyranny—and then become rivals—in this first sweeping book of an epic fantasy series from Ken Liu, recipient of Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.
Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, and shapeshifting gods. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.
Fans of intrigue, intimate plots, and action will find a new series to embrace in the Dandelion Dynasty.
TITLE: The Grace of Kings
AUTHOR: Ken Liu (narrated by Michael Kramer)
PUBLISHER: Saga Press
LENGTH: 640 pages (21 hours 37 minutes)
Queer Rep Summary: No canon queer rep, but there is a f/m/f/m polyam chain.
THE GRACE OF KINGS is the story of the shattering of one dynasty and the early forging of another. Two friends who take down an empire together become bitter enemies and are unable to walk away until one (or both) are utterly broken.
The third person narration mostly follows Mata and Kuni, then Jia, as well as a smattering of other perspectives as is necessary for the particular scene. There are interludes where the gods are commenting on events and taking sides, I like how they made it unambiguous that the gods exist and are interested, but that the humans are the main actors. It made their small interventions feel more meaningful, while keeping unquestioned the agency of the main characters.
Mata Zyndu is the last member of the Zyndu clan. Kuni Garu woos Jia Matiza and begins trying to improve his life by having literally any job in order to impress her parents. This doesn’t work very well (he strives to do the most interesting thing and very few available steady jobs can qualify as “most interesting”). He becomes a bandit early on in the narrative, which is how he meets Mata Zyndu. Jia is a source of stability for Kuni early on but eventually figures out how to claim more of a place for herself which isn’t as dependent on him for her story.
Kuni and Mata have different approaches from the beginning of their acquaintance. Early on they’re able to coordinate their strengths to great effect, but once things start falling apart their differences make small misunderstandings large and their newly-competing political goals slowly remove pressure to reconcile. Mata has this larger-than-life physical presence and strong principles, but his rigidity starts to get in the way. Kuni is flexible but directionless, moving from one small goal to the next, checking in with his friends and confidantes.
Kuni and Jia are best described as having a series of long-distance relationships with each other. They stay consistently important in each other’s lives, but they have to figure out how to balance their relationship, Kuni’s drive to do dangerous things, and Jia’s need to have a life that’s more than hoping he’ll be able to come home. I’m very pleased with the solution they reach, it works well for the narrative and for the characters involved.
The worldbuilding is very detailed in terms of politics and political history of the region where the story is set. Early on there’s an entire chapter which details the most relevant portions of that history. I think it’s a good test for whether you’re likely to enjoy the rest of the story. It felt a bit dry, partly because it was a lot of information at once, but I enjoyed the detail of it and within a few chapters I was very grateful for that early context. Kuni and Mata become political players because war is political and they decided to fight the Empire. I like being given the context to have an idea what certain moves could implicate for other things in play before they’re spelled out in the text, and being given the political histories early on was great for that.
The ending is fitting based on the flower motif and which flower is in the name of the series (it’s not the chrysanthemum). In particular I like how it allows for narrative stability at the very end while hinting at the shape of specific trouble to come.
I read this as an audiobook and I plan to read the rest of the series that way. It was easy to follow and I like the narrator.
CW for sexism, misogyny, pregnancy, excrement, blood (graphic), gore (graphic), violence (graphic), fire/fire injury, genocide, suicide, torture, self harm, child abuse (graphic), animal cruelty, cannibalism, murder, child death, death (graphic).