Hey everyone. 🙂
Yep, I was lucky enough to have been able to conduct an email interview with Ken – I’ve been reading (and massively enjoying) The Grace of Kings – not only as a fan of Epic Fantasy but also as a writer. 🙂
If you haven’t read The Grace of Kings yet, you’re missing out on something supremely special – here’s the blurb:
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.
Book 2, The Wall of Storms, was released today, and I know I’m not the only one excited about where the story is headed. 🙂 With that in mind, let’s get to the interview, shall we?
Dave: Every tale has a seed – looking back, what was the genesis of The Grace of Kings? Where did it all begin for you?
Ken: When I was in grade school, I used to run home every day during lunch break to listen to the pingshu storyteller on the radio with my grandmother, both of us entranced by tales of heroism and betrayal. This was how I absorbed Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and a great deal of what I’ve learned about storytelling can be traced back to these early lessons.
My wife Lisa similarly grew up with fond memories of wuxia TV dramas in Hong Kong, which take a lot of their narrative techniques from Chinese historic romances. When I was looking for a suitable subject for my first novel, Lisa suggested that I do an epic fantasy take on Chinese historical romances, and I knew right away that the idea made sense. I wanted to try to reimagine a Chinese historical romance as an epic fantasy, to transform a foundational Chinese narrative—in this case, the founding of the Han Dynasty—into a new kind of story told with narrative tropes taken from both East Asian and Western epics.
Or, in words more suited to our Twitter-driven age: I wanted to write “War & Peace with silk-and-bamboo airships; Iliad with living books and sentient narwhals; Romance of the Three Kingdoms with u-boats.”
The actual source material for The Grace of Kings is Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian. Sima painted vivid portraits of historical figures in his biographies (not unlike Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans), and parts of The Grace of Kings deliberately evoke that “historian’s voice” to offer another perspective on the events and characters.
While I draw a lot of inspiration from Chinese literary predecessors, the novel is told using a deliberate melding of narrative conventions taken from multiple literary traditions. There are wuxia-style flashback character introductions as well as Anglo-Saxon-style kennings, poems based on Tang Dynasty models as well as songs imitating Middle English lyrics, rhetorical devices taken from Greek and Latin epics as well as formal descriptions reminiscent of Ming Dynasty novels. The opening scene, for example, makes use of an extended series of parallel sentences with repetitive structure to form a catalog, something familiar in old oral epics but not often seen in modern works. A reader may feel this novel is different, but if I’ve succeeded, the reader should also feel, after an initial period of adjustment, that this melded style is the only one right for the story.
Dave: Every writer has their process – what is yours? For example, I sit with headphones on and play movie scores while writing. What is Ken Liu’s process?
Ken: All my writing time is pretty much confined to the commuter rail trips between my home and my job. It’s really the only break during the day when I can focus on writing, and so I take advantage of it to do as much of my drafting during that time as possible. On the other hand, I do a lot of thinking and story development when I’m walking about or just doing housework so that I can write with more focus when I do get a moment to draft.
Dave: The Grace of Kings is a sprawling epic – did you sit down to outline the tale before writing it? And how much of that outline did you stick to? I know from my experience that sometimes characters do things that are surprising, and events take place which weren’t necessarily in the blue-print.
Ken: I had in mind an overall arc for the series as a whole as well as some big set pieces I knew I wanted to hit along the way. Keeping those set pieces and the overall shape of the arc in mind, I prefer to let the journey surprise me. I write the novels by following the guidance of the pre-imagined landmarks, sailing from island to island, but the exact course I chart remins a surprise until the words actually appear on the screen.
Dave: You’ve got plenty of wonderful, memorable characters in The Grace of Kings – were there some characters who were easier to write than others?
The hardest character to write was probably Mata Zyndu. He represents such a different way of thinking and of relating to the world that it was quite difficult to make him sympathetic to the reader (this is similar to how it is very difficult for modern readers to relate to a character like Achilles, whose view of the world and whose ethics are so different from ours that he seems like an alien to most of us). But some readers have told me that he is their favorite character, which makes me really happy.
I have affection for all my characters, even the villains. It’s easy to write the deeds of heroes, but harder to write about the deeds and thoughts of villains and portray them with humanity without losing the moral compass of the tale.
Dave: There are many tropes and expected conventions of Epic Fantasy which you play with and explore in The Grace of Kings – can you talk a bit about these tropes and conventions and how they differ (or change) from culture to culture? For example, the kinds of stories which come of of the Far East versus the expected kinds of stories coming out of Western or Western-influenced genre tales?
Ken: I tend to resist the idea that cultural differences in narrative can be easily summarized into simple contrasts. The more confidently someone tells you how the “Far East” is different from the “West,” the less I think you should bother listening to them because such confidence is a sign that either they don’t know much or that they haven’t thought about the issues very hard. The more I study different literary tradition, the more difficult it becomes to generalize about their differences. On the one hand, there are echoes of certain sets of themes across all the epic traditions I study: the nobility of the warrior’s code is celebrated as much by the ancient Greeks as by Anglo-Saxon thanes and Han Dynasty generals. On the other hand, when you examine the details of these narratives, there are interesting differences at every level. For instance, East Asian traditions seem to explore often the theme that warriors can form a fast and close brotherhood when joined in common cause against a great foe, but such bonds tend to fall apart as the common foe is defeated and ambition seizes the hearts of individual warriors. This theme, while not unknown in Western epic traditions, doesn’t have quite the resonance or importance it does in East Asian literature. This theme, of course, is at the heart of The Grace of Kings, and I tell parts of it with all the trappings and flourishes of an Anglo-Saxon poem.
The Grace of Kings also deliberately plays with the “epic” part of Epic Fantasy. Modern Epic Fantasy has actually moved away from a lot of the techniques and conventions used in classical epics. The Grace of Kings often feels like a much older work than it actually is because it deliberately attempts to be an epic poem about an East Asian narrative pattern.
Dave: One thing that many Epic Fantasy-readers expect to find is magic, or sorcery – can you talk a bit about this expectation from readers and how you played with that expectation?
Ken: The world of Dara hovers deliberately on the edge of “fantasy” – on the one hand, the presence of the gods and fantastical creatures like the crubens tells you that this is not a world quite like ours, but at the same time, every time the gods do intervene, the scene is written in such a way that you could, if you wanted to, make sense of the events without resorting to the supernatural. This is, actually, quite close to our own experiences with the ambivalence of the “supernatural” in this world.
In fact, if there were something in The Grace of Kings, that truly functions like “magic” in a modern Epic Fantasy, it would be the silkpunk technology. Silkpunk shares with steampunk a fascination with technology roads not taken, but is distinguished by a visual style inspired by Chinese block prints and an emphasis on materials primarily of historic significance to East Asia—silk, bamboo, ox sinew, paper, writing brushes—as well as other organic building materials available to seafaring peoples like coconut, whalebone, fish scales, coral, etc. The result is a technology vocabulary that feels more organic and more inspired by biomechanics. For instance, the bamboo-and-silk airships compress and expand their gasbags to change the amount of lift and are powered by feathered oars. When illuminated at night, they pulsate and move like jellyfish through an empyrean sea. Similarly, artificial limbs described in the book draw their inspiration from the “wooden oxen” of Zhuge Liang in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, being constructed from intricate wooden mechanisms powered by flexible ox sinew.
The engineers in the Dandelion Dynasty series assume roles that would traditionally be taken by wizards in an Epic Fantasy (and this is even more obvious in The Wall of Storms). This makes my fantasy read a lot like science fiction in places, and that’s a deliberate choice as well, for the series, despite the presence of the gods and the constant evocation of fate, ultimately subscribes to the view that the universe is knowable.
Dave: And finally, what can readers expect from ‘The Wall of Storms’? Are we, as the stunning cover might suggests, going north?
Ken: The Grace of Kings is about larger-than-life characters doing larger-than-life thing. The Wall of Storms, on the other hand, is about how the next generation rewrites these legends and construct new stories from broken-up pieces of the old.
The book starts about five years after the end of The Grace of Kings, and introduces a set of new characters alongside the ones readers already know from the first book. You’re quite right that there’s an attempt to go beyond the boundaries of the world shown in the first book, and the attempt leads to a new challenge to the order of Dara that will either bring about the end of the world as we know it or point the way for a new way to achieve more justice.
The Wall of Storms is bigger, deeper, and I think better than The Grace of Kings. It asks different questions and provides different answers, but readers will get to enjoy even more intricate plots and political maneuverings, as well as tons of silkpunk technology inventions. I had even more fun writing this book than the first one, so I hope readers’ enjoyment also goes up similarly.
There we go – hopefully that gave you some insight into Ken, his process and The Grace of Kings. 🙂 Since we’re celebrating the release of The Wall of Storms, here’s the wonderful cover:
Head over to Ken’s site for his launch-announcement, and click below to order The Wall of Storms:
Amazon US Hardcover, Amazon US Kindle, Amazon UK Hardcover, Amazon UK Kindle, and add it to your Goodreads shelf here.
I’ll be doing more author-interviews on my site, as well as posting reviews, so subscribe or add my RSS feed to keep up to date. 🙂
Massive thanks to Blake Brooks for facilitating this interview, Jennifer Ball for putting me in touch with Blake, Elmarie Stodart for reaching out and passing this opportunity my way, and Ken, of course, for taking the time over a weekend to answer my questions. 🙂
Until next time,