Archives for posts with tag: Epic Fantasy

If subtle and sophisticated aren’t words which you associate with Epic Fantasy, you obviously haven’t yet read Ken Liu’s `The Grace of Kings’. This Silkpunk (the oriental equivalent of Steampunk) novel was published in 2015 and is Book One of `The Dandelion Dynasty’. It is just out in a paperback edition with rather small print, presumably designed to make a very long book look merely long (618 pages). The ebook version might be a more comfortable read. `The Grace of Kings’ is set in the Islands of Dara, a Fantasy realm which Ken Liu apparently co-created with his artist wife, Lisa Tang Liu.

For centuries Dara was divided into seven states, each with its own king, culture and patron deity. These quarrelsome rulers often went to war with each other over disputed territory. Then a King of Xana conquered the other states, killed or banished their ruling families and declared himself Emperor of the Seven Islands. As the story begins, Emperor Mapidere claims to preside over a new era of peace and unity but the people of his empire are suffering because of corrupt officials, heavy taxes, and vain-glorious building projects which cause the deaths of thousands of workers. When Mapidere dies, intrigues at court ensure that he is succeeded by a weak prince. Across the empire, strange prophecies encourage people to defy the government. Former royal families see a chance of getting their power and independence back. The deities of Dara watch events with interest but agree that none of them shall interfere directly in human affairs.

Caught up in the rebellion against the Xana Empire are two very different young men – Mata Zyndu and Kuni Garu. Mata has been living as a fisherman on the coast of Cocru but he is heir to a noble line of generals. He has unusual size and strength and Mata’s uncle, Phin, has brought him up to avenge the slaughter of the Zyndu Clan and `restore clarity and order’ to Dara. When a shepherd who belongs to the old royal line, is suddenly proclaimed King of Cocru, Mata and Phin fight valiantly on his behalf. Elsewhere in Cocru, farmer’s son Kuni Garu grows up in the city of Zudi. He is brilliant but lazy and seems destined to be an easy-going rogue but a wealthy young woman sees great potential in him. After they are married, Kuni tries to settle down as a minor official of the Empire but a twist of fate turns him into a bandit chief and then a rebel leader. When Kuni seeks help to liberate his home city, he meets Mata and the two become close friends.

In the early days of the rebellion five states manage to break away from the Empire, but then Xana appoints  a more efficient commander-in-chief and the war begins to go against the rebels. Mata and Kuni become disillusioned with the bickering and incompetent rulers of the rebel states. Mata responds with ferocious military campaigns while Kuni and his advisors come up with a daring plan to strike at the imperial capital. Kuni’s success soon brings him into conflict with Mata. What began as a struggle for freedom turns into a ruthless contest for power. Ultimately, there can only be one winner.

I’m late with this recommendation because of illness but even when I was coughing and feverish this novel kept me enthralled. `The Grace of Kings’ seems very much a labour of love and it doesn’t follow the current rule that commercial fiction must consist of non-stop action and suspense. Something exciting does happen during the prologue but then Liu takes all the time he needs to establish his characters and their back-stories. He has created an intricate mosaic of a book and my brief summary can’t do justice to the full range of characters and subplots linked to the central duo. The story really gets going at the point where most Fantasy epics stop. The evil Empire is overthrown but what should replace it? Differing answers lead to painful conflicts and lost ideals. In the final two sections of the novel, there are plot-twists which made me gasp and personal tragedies which made me cry. Liu is terrific at battle scenes and seems to be a master of military strategy. Terrible things do happen in `The Grace of Kings’  – beheadings, burnings, drownings – but the violence is always described in a restrained way.

The elegance of Liu’s prose is one of the things which makes this novel stand out. Another is the colourful and original  setting, which melds  elements of Chinese and Polynesian culture, religion and history. Each of the seven island states has its distinctive features and the Lius are particularly good with landscapes, architecture and food. As in many ancient epics, shape-shifting gods and goddesses take sides in the human conflicts and bend the rules to help their favourites at crucial moments. In `The Grace of Kings’ though these interventions never absolve the humans from taking responsibility for their own choices and actions. The supernatural elements are sparingly used and Dara is a society in which war stimulates the development of technology. The warriors in this story fight on horseback with swords but they also use airships, submarines and explosives. Ironically, war is also shown as changing traditional gender-based roles and giving women new opportunities.

At first I feared that `The Grace of Kings’ might be flawed by a lack of strong female characters but there are some interesting and powerful women in the latter part of book, such as Kuni’s two wives, herbalist Jia and illusionist Risani, Gin, a street orphan who becomes a general and embroiderer, Mira, who speaks for all the families who have lost loved ones in the wars. The main focus of the novel though is on the two men who represent very different types of Fantasy hero – Mata the mighty warrior and Kuni the loveable trickster. Mata looks terrifying – he’s over eight feet tall and his eyes have double pupils – and he’s almost invincible in battle. He is proud, merciless and absolutely convinced of the rightness of his mission to restore the old order. In a lesser book, Mata would have been a monster but Liu makes us feel sorry for this unhappy loner who, unlike Kuni, finds it hard to understand or relate to other people. Kuni acknowledges that they are both idealists but says that Mata `wants to restore the world to a state that never was, I wish to bring it to a state that has not yet been seen.’

Charming Kuni constantly doubts himself and his ideas, which makes him more attractive to modern readers. He seems to be the plot’s `good guy’ and yet some of his decisions lead to terrible sufferings and betrayals. It is this ambiguity which makes the story so fascinating. `The Grace of Kings’ dramatizes two traditional questions – `Does the end justify the means’ and `Is an oppressive peace better than dangerous freedom? – and makes them seem more relevant than ever. If you are looking for something as thrilling as `Game of Thrones’ but more profound, do give this thoughtful epic a try. Until next time….




One of  the aims of this blog is to challenge the idea that women don’t like Fantasy fiction. There are masses of keen and knowledgeable female readers of SF and Fantasy and some of the best adult Fantasy novels of recent years have been written by women. This week’s recommendation – `The Broken Kingdoms’ by American author N.K.Jemisin – is a shining example. Officially this is Book Two of `The Inheritance Trilogy’ – not to be confused with Ian Douglas’s SF `Inheritance Trilogy’  or Christopher Paolini’s dragon-centred `Inheritance Cycle’. The fictional world of Jemisin’s trilogy is a strange and intricate one. I suggest that you enter it via`The Broken Kingdoms’ and then go back in time to `The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ and forward again to `The Kingdom of Gods’.  All three books are available in paperback or as ebooks.

In the beginning there were three great deities, Itempas the Bright Lord, Nahadoth the Night Lord and Enefa the Goddess of Earth. The Three lived in harmony for aeons, creating innumerable gods, goddesses and mortals. After a terrible divine quarrel known as the Gods’ War,  Enefa was slain by her brother Itempas, while Nahadoth and the deities who supported him were condemned to become the slaves of a human family known as the Arameri. For thousands of years the ruthless Arameri enforced the worship of Itempas and ruled the world from the palace of Sky but in `The Broken Kingdoms’  there has been a great change. A new goddess, the Gray Lady, has arisen and created a gigantic World Tree which now dominates Sky. The enslaved deities have been freed and the power of the Arameri has been weakened but not overthrown. In Shadow, the city at the base of the World Tree, the human population must get used to living alongside the minor deities known as Godlings.

Oree Shoth has come to Shadow to earn a living selling her artwork to pilgrims. She knows that she is a beauty with unusual near-black skin and weird eyes because people have told her so. Oree is blind and can’t see herself but she can see gods, anything magical and her own paintings. She describes herself as `a woman plagued by gods’ and is trying to get over a love affair with Madding, the God of Debts. Oree’s other problem is the mute stranger she calls `Shiny’. She impulsively took him in after finding him in a rubbish dump but he isn’t an easy house-guest.  Shiny doesn’t seem to have any powers but he may be a Godling because he glows every morning and comes back to life whenever he is careless enough to get killed, which seems to happen rather often.

When Oree discovers the body of a murdered Godling in an alley it brings her unwelcome attention from the Order-Keepers, who punish unauthorised use of magic. After Shiny unexpectedly intervenes to save her from interrogation by a priest-magician of Itempas, Oree is forced to go on the run. She and her former lover, Madding, try to find out who is murdering and kidnapping Godlings before the Night Lord takes revenge by destroying the whole city. Soon Oree herself is kidnapped by a group who want to use her as a weapon and it becomes increasingly unclear whether the enigmatic Shiny will help or destroy her. If she and the Gods are to survive, Oree must learn to understand the true nature of her inheritance.

I have several reasons for suggesting that new readers start the series with this volume. The first is a personal one. I’ve just come back from Norway where I kept seeing references to Yggdrasil, the World Tree of Scandinavian mythology, and `The Broken Kingdoms’ has its own magnificent Tree of Life. Jemisin’s imagination is big enough to create a tree 125,000 feet high and make me believe in it. Secondly, `The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ and `Kingdom of Gods’ are epic novels  dealing with the entire history of the Divine Family of this universe and with the interlinked rise and fall of the Empire of the Arameri but `The Broken Kingdoms’ is on a more intimate scale and tells the story of a single relationship that will eventually influence the outcome of the main plotline. Thirdly, while each volume of the trilogy has a different first-person narrator, big-hearted Oree is the one who is easiest to like and understand. She’s no kind of super hero, just a smart, quietly brave young woman whose strong sense of compassion gets her into trouble. Oree has a nice line in self-deprecating humour about her failed love-life and she’s determined to be independent in spite of her disability. Jemisin handles the challenge of having a main viewpoint character who is blind very cleverly. Sharing Oree’s limited view of Shadow makes it easier for the reader to get to grips with this bizarre god-haunted city.

Both `The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ and `The Broken Kingdoms’ start off like standard `feisty girl in peril’ tales and then transform into `something rich and strange’ as a pantheon of deities joins the cast. Jemisin’s divine characters are much more like the gods and goddesses of ancient myth than deities in Fantasy fiction usually are. These are beings who are virtually immortal, can change forms, family roles and genders at will, have benevolent and destructive aspects and are not bound by any of the rules of human morality. Is it possible to imagine what the mental and emotional worlds of such beings would be like? I would have said no, but Jemisin has done it and made these extraordinary beings, and their complex relations with each other, almost comprehensible. Her portrait of Sieh, the capricious Trickster God of Childhood is particularly outstanding but he only makes a cameo appearance in this volume. Jemisin has also thought hard about what it would be like to be the god or goddess of a particular aspect of the world – whether it is something as great as Life and Death or as trivial as Junk. She asks whether the strength of a deity’s affinity makes him or her less free to shape their own life than the humblest mortal. For example,  can the God of Order ever learn to embrace change?

On another level, these troubled deities with their  role-playing and power struggles, intergenerational conflicts and fear of loneliness, aren’t so very different from us. I wasn’t too surprised to find out that Jemisin is a counselor as well as an author, though I hope that none of her clients have problems quite as dramatic as the incest and murder that goes on in these novels. The `Inheritance Trilogy’ is packed with all the magic, mystery and excitement that readers of Fantasy expect, but basically Jemisin is writing about relationships. In this fractured divine family there are no real villains because everyone has understandable reasons for they way they act and `Life is never one thing’. `The Broken Kingdoms’ could be classed as a Paranormal Romance but it examines many aspects of love, including whether it is possible to love one person (or god) without making others feel excluded. At the start of the story, Shiny believes that mortals are so unimportant that he won’t even speak to them. Oree gradually changes his mind by teaching him the meaning of friendship and self-sacrifice. Jemisin’s skill at characterization makes this an outstanding and moving  novel. Until two weeks time….





Book jackets and blurbs tend to make all Fantasy epics look and sound much the same. On the cover there will be a castle or city, a clash of warriors and perhaps a scantily clad heroine, while the blurb is likely to mention fallen empires and desperate quests, rightful rulers and wars against evil. So, how do you tell the classic from the clichéd? If you yearn for a Fantasy epic of  grandeur and imagination which also challenges the rules of the genre,  the Acacia Trilogy by David Anthony Durham may be what you’ve been searching for. So this week I’m recommending Book One of this prize-winning trilogy.  In some editions Book One is just  called `Acacia’ and in others `Acacia : The War with the Mein’. You can get it in paperback or as an ebook. Try not to confuse the Acacia Trilogy with the Acacia City Chronicle Trilogy by Ray Santos, since the latter is about vampires in San Francisco.

Durham’s `Acacia’ is set in a world which believes that it has been abandoned by its creator, the Giver. For centuries most of the Known World has been ruled by the Akaran family from the idyllic island of Acacia. The current king, Leodan, is a widower with four much loved children – Princes Aliver and Dariel, and Princesses Corinn and Mena. Gentle Leodan has raised his children to revere the founders of their dynasty and to believe that the benevolent rule of the Akarans brings peace and security to all the diverse peoples of the Empire. There is a great deal that he hasn’t told them. The prosperity of the Akaran family is based on ruthless exploitation of conscripted labourers and on an infamous agreement with traders known as the League of Vessels to send an annual quota of children to the Other Lands in exchange for a powerful drug called Mist.

Mist keeps millions of  addicts in subjection but rebellion is stirring. It is led by the Mein, a people long ago defeated and banished to the frozen north. Hanish, the young leader of the Mein, plots against the Akarans, making allies of the Numrek, a brutal alien race, and even persuading Leodan’s chancellor and friend, Thaddeus Clegg, to betray his king. When Hanish launches a multi-pronged attack, the Akaran Empire crumbles. Leodan is doomed but Thaddeus tries to save the royal children by secretly sending each of them to a different part of the empire to be brought up as future saviours of Acacia. The plan quickly goes wrong.  Only Crown Prince Aliver gets to where he was meant  to go. Mena and Dariel are lost and Corinn is captured by the Mein. As years pass, King Hanish grows increasingly fond of his beautiful prisoner Corinn but he has a dark plan to lift an Akaran curse on his ancestors which he must keep hidden from her. Meanwhile, Aliver learns that his task is to seek out an ancient race of sorcerers known as the Santoth. Can the four royal siblings ever be reunited to defeat the Mein, and will it be a good thing for the Known World if they are?

If you enjoy watching or reading `Game of Thrones’, you’ll find that `Acacia’ has a similar mix of conflict and carnage plus an intelligent analysis of the compromises, cruelties and corruptions that go with power. Durham began his career writing well-researched historical novels, including one about the war between ancient Rome and Carthage. That experience must  have helped him to create the very convincing battle scenes in `Acacia’, as well as a whole range of cultures within the Akaran Empire. Durham is an author with a deep understanding of the politics and economics of empires. Fantasy fiction is full of dazzlingly rich cities and palaces and imperial families dripping in jewels but rarely explains how it is all paid for. `Acacia’ does ask this question and comes up with some very uncomfortable answers. That in itself makes this serious-minded trilogy stand out from the crowd. There are plenty of historical parallels for elite groups, comparable to the Akarans and the League, deriving their wealth from slave or drug trading and being indifferent to the sufferings of their workforces. `Acacia’ questions the belief that rulers who impose order and peace are always a good thing but also demonstrates that the price of freedom and independence may be very high.

Durham doesn’t write the most elegant prose and he’s not great at coining names but he is an excellent storyteller.  `Acacia’ isn’t the story of one person, or even of one family, but of a whole world. It involves a range of ethnically diverse characters struggling for power and justice, so Durham uses points of view from both sides of the conflict to tell the story. None of the characters are outstandingly original but they all have believable feelings, motives and ambitions. This, and the nature of the plot, makes it hard for the reader to know whom to side with. Lost heirs to the throne are Fantasy favourites but these princes and princesses don’t seem to be fighting in a good cause. After the darker aspects of Akaran rule are revealed, Hanish of the Mein seems the obvious candidate for hero, but he uses indiscriminate weapons and is planning to unleash a supernatural horror on the Known World.  My own favourite viewpoint character in Book One is Chancellor Thaddeus because he embodies the ambiguities of the story.  He betrays King Leodan, who is little more than a figurehead,  because of a crime committed by Leodan’s father. Thaddeus knows that Akaran rule is unjust but he can’t bring himself to kill the innocent royal children he has loved as if they were his own. As someone points out, will these children be as innocent once they grow up? One of them is destined to surpass Thaddeus’ hopes; another will murder him.

`Acacia: The War with the Mein’ is that rare thing, a first volume which is a satisfying story in its own right but leaves you eager to read the rest of the series.  After a tremendous battle and an unleashing of magical forces which will have long-term consequences, the novel ends with a surprising person coming to power. There are plenty of unexpected but plausible plot twists in this series and Durham is particularly good at planting hooks – those teasing questions which keep the reader turning the pages. Above all, he makes you want to know the fate of the unfortunate children carried across the Gray Slopes in the sinister League ships. To find out how extraordinary that fate is, you’ll have to follow the story into Book Two – `Other Lands’, which has more magic, more monsters and several startling new plotlines. I hope you enjoy the journey. Until next time…