I was thrilled to have our special author guest Ken Liu on the show! He joined us to talk about his novel, The Grace of Kings, which is out now - and you should go read it. Thank you so much for being with us, Ken!
Ken describes the book as taking on epic fantasy with a "different aesthetic and sensibility." Just as many of the stories in the epic fantasy canon take European traditional tales as their basis, Ken wanted to make a story that was based on "foundational narratives" from China, such as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The book also is inspired by events of the founding of the Han dynasty, specifically a document called Records of the Grand Historian, which Ken read in the original (and we were all terribly impressed!).
The historical events paralleled in the book are when a tyrannical dynasty caused rebellions and broke into kingdoms, and two powers emerged to struggle for dominance. In The Grace of Kings, two men become friends and rebel against the emperor, but their contrasting ideologies make them rivals later.
One of Ken's critical early decisions was making this "not a magical China story." Western readers are familiar with a lot of these, and they set up a lot of really problematic expectations and deep misunderstandings. It's incredibly hard to get away from the taint of Orientalism. For example, even using the words "Chinese dragon" to describe the Chinese mythological creature lóng makes it seem derivative, when it's entirely unrelated. The lóng is a creature of water, benevolent, associated with ancient tribal totems and Buddhist Naga deities. It becomes very hard to view things with out the colonial gaze.
Ken particularly wanted to write about change, rather than about the restoration of a golden age.
The world of The Grace of Kings is thus clearly inspired by East Asia, but designed to defeat expectations. He wants people to feel, "I don't know what this is." Dara is an archipelago, deliberately distinct from any vision of Chinese geography. The aesthetic of the work he sometimes terms "silkpunk." The "punk" part of the word is about rebellion, bout creating revolution.
Ken uses a theory of technology that comes from the economist Brian Arthur, who treats technology not as pieces of machinery, but of part of a language of expression in which inventions are utterances. Components like transistors become part of the vocabulary, and understandings of how things go together are like grammars. Together they come together into a larger discourse of technology. The languages are the driving forces, like steam, magnetism, etc. He described his "nouns" as bamboo, paper, silk, and seashells; his "verbs" are muscle, wind, and water, and his "grammatical rules" are the rules of biomechanics.
There is a fascinating parallel he mentioned between technology and moral attitudes. Steampunk is associated with brass, and corsets, with inflexibility and constriction. He wanted to focus on silk, nature, and flexibility. His airships have components that act like the swim bladders of fish, and they have feathered oars. They pulse like jellyfish. Artificial limbs have ox sinew in them. Everything has an organic, life-like feel, while magic deepens and adds to the existing silkpunk aesthetic.
I asked Ken how long it took him to write the book. He said he'd written it in many drafts, and that the first ones were spare; the work needed time to mature. He said the stories authors tell about their writing processes are often "too good to be true," since the process of creation is messy.
I then asked him to describe his research. He said he felt that about half of the work was in his head, and about half was new research. He was deeply inspired by (and has dedicated the book to) his grandmother in China, with whom he'd listen to storytellers on the radio during lunch. This was a special childhood memory and his first encounter with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Thus, the echoes of this and other foundational narratives were already in his head. He read the Records of the Grand Historian and did lots of research on airships and their workings, herbal lore, and all the technical knowledge that appears in the book. There was a lot of science research.
He described wanting to take a new narrative approach. It's an unusual structure, and a non-standard approach to point of view, deliberately designed to hark back to oral tradition and wuxia fantasies. It also uses techniques and tropes from western narratives such as the Iliad, Beowulf, and western oral narratives. If you're going in cold, he says, it can take some getting used to because there is less of a tight focus and a lot of omniscient epic voice. He said his beta readers told him they were reminded of War and Peace. He tries to capture a great sweep by pulling back, then zoom in to the eyes of the point of view character. There is lots of zooming! His aim was for the narrative to feel new and yet also classical.
There are some powerful flower-based metaphors in the book, which I then asked him about. He said that he had originally titled the book The Chrysanthemum and the Dandelion, though the title was later changed to better reflect the genre of the book. Chrysanthemums are noble, austere, dominant, and suggest honor and courage without doubt. Dandelions are practical, appear at the roadside, and are resourceful, resilient survivors. These flowers suggest the different ideas about justice in the story. There is a scene when characters play a drinking game in which they compare themselves to flowers. The metaphors get a chance to play into characterizations, personalities, and foibles. They also evoke emotions. One of the inspirations for this was an instance in real life where a poet composed a rebellious poem praising chrysanthemums - rebellious, because the official court flower at the time was the peony. The writing of this poem about a flower thus had political consequences.
Birds also feature remarkably in the story, so I asked him about them. He said they were important in part because he was working with an archipelago, and had to figure out how things worked there. Getting from island to island was very important, so inventing vehicles was critical. The fact that he was working with islands also affected his use of metaphors, meaning that a lot of them are sea and sky-related. As he writes, he grows to think like the characters. The invention and maintenance of air power was important because the Dara kingdoms were in a stalemate, and it was air power, aerial warfare that broke this trend. Thus, he spent a lot of time observing birds and many scenes are related to the observation of flight. As a result of this and other factors, Ken has been told that his story "reads like science fiction." He describes himself as a technologist and geek.
I asked him about the issue of gender, which had come up in some of the reviews I had read. Ken said it would be easy to be trapped by the source material, such as Beowulf and the Aenead, which was very male-centric and featured few women with agency. In re-imagining those narratives, he had to make a deliberate departure from that trap. As to the idea of "accuracy," he notes that women were present when these narratives were created - they just weren't recorded. He felt if he was going to add airships, that "accuracy" as such was not a good excuse. He mentioned Kate Elliott and Kameron Hurley as important people who have changed how we view women in epic fantasy. As we reimagine, we question and critique at the same time.
Ken's own choice was to start in a place where it reads like an epic - but his novel is about change, so things change! He asks questions like "What is a more ideal world?" and "As a ruler, where do you find your strength?" Even at the end of the first book, he notes, this is not a utopia. There is a multi-book arc planned.
Glenda asked Ken whether there was a better word to use than dragon, and Ken spoke to us a bit about translation, which is one of his specialties. Translation, he says, is not just a linguistic act. When missionaries to China discovered this new creature, they didn't know what to call it and could have borrowed the word lóng. Instead they chose to describe it using existing concepts. It was reptilian, big, awe-inspiring... and thus they went with "dragon." Ken also mentioned the concept which is generally translated as "filial piety." The phrase invokes religious awe, but it's a bad translation. The concept of piety is very different in East vs. West. There are no religious or worshipful implications in the Chinese concept. Reverence for ancestors is not equal to worshipping them as gods. This is something he calls translation "slippage," and it leads to layers of misunderstanding. The translation "Mandate of heaven" is also misleading. The ideas and expectations evoked by words are hard to put away once they have been activated. Even a single reference to an existing structure can become a trap that leads to prejudice.
Thank you so much to Ken Liu for joining us and giving us these great insights into The Grace of Kings!
Here's the video if you would like more detail: