The Grace of Kings & Narrative Form

Hi friends!  Deadlines march along, but I wanted to share something really cool with you.  Tumblr user (do we capitalize tumblr at the beginning of a sentence? I imagine we must) wichago made a God Wars playlist on 8track.  Some great music on there—good lyrical references, too.  I really need to listen to more Metric.

Also!  A number of book blogs are assembling to do a Read-along virtual book club sort of thing on Three Parts Dead this month.  Check it out!  Join in!  This seems like a really fun way to read things.

ALSO ALSO Super bonus post-publication fun time edit: Full Fathom Five was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror!  I’m so excited by this!  But I wrote another blog post already, so I’ll talk about that next week!

I’ve been thinking a bit in the last couple days about storytelling toolboxes, because I’m one of those unconscionably lucky bastards who ended up with an advance reader copy of Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings.  This isn’t a review, because I’m still reading, but I can tell you already that you should pre-order it if you’ve ever been excited by a book in which one individual swings a sword at another.

I’ve written at great length elsewhere about wellsprings of fantasy tradition outside the Western mythological canon.  In these essays I tended to focus on the stories themselves—who does what within them, what kinds of situations and worlds are portrayed, etc.  For example: the Mahabharata is an immense philosophical epic in which warriors with psychic weapons that can break the planet in half fly around in diamond chariots piloted by gods and end up in sorta-poly romances, occasionally with other gods.  WHY WOULD YOU NOT WANT TO READ THAT?

This style of geeking out about myth is great, but it obscures the forms of the original texts—as, to be fair, do many translations.  (There are many prose renderings of the Mahabharata, which is a work of epic poetry; the Genji Monogatari was originally heavily illustrated IIRC, or at least historical editions of it were.)  Obscuring textual form encourages people to sort of project the content of these stories into familiar forms—like, say, the epic fantasy novel.  (I kinda did that in my retelling of Drona’s Death, recasting a key Mahabharata tale in the form of a Zelazny-esque SF short story.)

So this is fine!  But it ignores a whole different way to use these sources.  The way the story’s told can be as cool as its content!  (I mean, of course, but I usually think about this sort of thing in reference to more intentionally pomo stuff, rather than historical and literary sources.  The more fool I!)

In The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu’s telling a version of the fall of the Qin dynasty, and the Chu-Han contention, in an alt-Hawaii-ish setting with gods and zeppelins and it’s totally great.  But more to the point (for this essay, anyway), he’s using storytelling tricks which remind me a great deal of Ming Dynasty classics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and it’s these techniques as much as (or even more than!) the setting that make the book feel so fun and deep at once.

Here’s the thing about Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  It’s this vast sprawling 100-chapter epic that swings from battlefield to boudoir to roadside village, zooming in and out through time without breaking a sweat.  We’re not following a main character, exactly—we’re following a huge historical event.  We can glom onto central characters now and again, maybe even for most of the chapters, but all our heroes will die sooner or later, even if only from old age.

Because of its scope, and because it was presented by traveling literate storytellers to an eager illiterate listening public, Rot3K doesn’t let itself bog down in angst and soliloquizing.  A character plans a grand betrayal?  It’s generally executed within three chapters.  If she feels bad about it afterward, she commits suicide or confesses or commits a counterbetrayal or something with due haste.  Peasants rebel, gather thousands of followers, and overthrow major governments during a chapter break.

One interesting side effect of this approach is that, while Rot3K is brutal—people get butchered alive and subjected to all sorts of torture—it doesn’t fetishize brutality.  Someone’s eviscerated in the public square?  It happens and we move on without needing to linger on the knife tugging on abdominal skin, or the particular cadence of the scream.  Which, if you think about it, is even more horrifying, since it speaks of the readers’, and storytellers’, casual familiarity with acts the witnessing of which would cause modern folk who think of themselves as hard men to lose bowel control.  Rot3K establishes its viciousness the way Hammet establishes his characters are good brawlers—by not describing events that seem utterly routine to their participants (like disarming a guy who’s broken into your bedroom).

And the story takes a similar approach to fighting.  When Rot3K really wants to highlight a fight scene, it uses actual honest-to-god poetry to describe the combat.  Some day I’ll do this in a book and my editor will try to kill me.  But when we’re not watching something spectacular, the fights boil down to “And then Lü Bu entered the fray and killed several hundred men,” which tells you just about all you need to know about Lü Bu.  The style leaves blow-by-blow choreography to actors and acrobats, and lets the reader’s mind do most of the heavy lifting (outside of the occasional flights of poetry).  And it’s glorious lifting.

All this allows the story to swing back to characters faster—so that, even though we face a cast of thousands, we really know those thousands, from common folk to true heroes.  (At the same time, we grow to understand that the line between the two is very thin.)  But even as we grow to love these people, we must accept that the narrative structure allows any of them to die at any time for no reason whatsoever.

I don’t know if this was Ken Liu’s plan, but The Grace of Kings uses all these techniques masterfully.  The first couple hundred pages have covered at a gallop territory standard epic fantasy (and let’s reflect on how silly we are as human beings, that such a phrase makes sense to say) would linger over for an entire book.  And while all the above may sound as if the book skimps on the smaller moments, in fact these techniques lead to the exact opposite effect.  Whenever the pace slows to describe a single event—say, to show a character blow on a dandelion—it lands.  Many books would drown such key thematic moments in oceans of descriptive text, all those clothes, parades, and meaningless meals; here, they snap into sharp relief.

It’s a bracing and exciting approach.  Epic fantasy, in failure mode, feels like swimming in a pool filled with lukewarm Mrs. Butterworth’s.  The Grace of Kings is a dart through a crisp clear stream at dawn.

Here’s the preorder link.

3 Responses to “The Grace of Kings & Narrative Form”

  1. Paul Weimer

    I don’t know if this was Ken Liu’s plan, but The Grace of Kings uses all these techniques masterfully.

    I haven’t read it yet…but I do wonder if Ken’s short story instincts, in a epic fantasy length for a change, means the Rot3K style works perfectly to his aesthetic sensibilities.

    • max

      Yes, I think the short fiction sensibility is on display as well—clear & strong scene-by-scene structure, grand events told through small details, etc.

  2. Shane

    I’ve made it through the first 200 pages and I’m finding it bizarre and jarring. Ken Liu’s writing is beautiful, but I just keep bouncing off the story, unable to get into it. You’ve helped me understand why that is, and also convinced me to give it another shot. Thank you!


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