Archives for posts with tag: Silkpunk

As we’re coming up to Valentine’s Day I should probably be recommending something romantic. Well, this week’s choice does contain two love stories but it isn’t romantic in a slushy, happy-ever-after kind of a way. “The Reader” by Traci Chee is a Dystopian Fantasy written for Young Adults. It came out in 2016 and is Book One of the “Sea of Ink and Gold” series. A sequel, “The Speaker”, was published a few months ago. “The Reader” is easy to find in paperback or as an ebook; just don’t get it confused with “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink because that is a very different kind of novel.

Chee’s book is a complex multi-stranded story. It is set in Kelanna, “a wonderful and terrible world of water and ships and magic.” Many different races live in the five island kingdoms of Kelanna but none of them seem to have developed systems of writing. They remember their history by turning it into tales which pass “from mouth to mouth”.  One rare tale tells of “a mysterious object called a book, which held the key to the greatest magic Kelanna had ever known.”

The main story-line follows an orphan called Sefia who lives with the skilled thief she calls Aunt Nin. They are on the run from the people who murdered Sefia’s beloved father six years before. When assassins led by a woman in black catch up with them in the Forest Kingdom, Nin is carried off. Alone in the woods, Sefia opens a bundle which her father entrusted to her and discovers a book. Guided by memories of lessons from her late mother, Sefia teaches herself to read. She also learns how to enter a hidden world of golden currents which gives her strange powers.

In another strand of the plot, we meet a boy called Lon who also has the talent for dipping into this Illuminated World, where he is able to see past, present and future events. Lon is invited to become the new Apprentice Librarian in a secret Library run by by an order of Guardians dedicated to bringing “peace to an unstable world”. He forges friendships with other young Guardians and risks breaking the rules of the order by being strongly attracted to the Apprentice Assassin.

When Sefia rescues a prisoner from a crate it turns out to be a mute boy rather than her aunt. The boy, whom she calls Archer, has been tortured by the brutal Impressors and forced to fight other boys to the death. They travel on together. Sefia hopes to find and save Nin and she wants to investigate possible links between the woman in black and the cruel pirate who commands the Impressors. Her book sometimes shows Sefia stories about a very different pirate – Cannek Reed, the treasure-hunting, fame-seeking captain of  the Current of Faith. After an uncomfortably close encounter with a young assassin, Sefia and Archer are startled to find themselves on board the Current of Faith. They must win over Captain Reed if Sefia is to continue her quest for answers, redemption and revenge.

“The Reader” has sneaked onto Fantasy Reads even though I can think of a stack of reasons for not picking this book. For starters, the synopsis is a nightmare to write without giving away too much about the plot and structure of Chee’s novel. What begins as a fairly standard epic journey plus “teenager develops superpowers” plot soon deepens and divides. There are layers of stories within stories and Chee plays tricks with time and identity. Working out the connections between the various plot-lines and characters isn’t easy. By the end of this book some of Sefia’s questions about her heritage have been answered but there are revelations to come in the sequel which overturn most of what you think you’ve learned about Kelanna and the Guardians. If you prefer straightforward linear narratives, and don’t enjoy pitting your wits against an author, avoid “The Reader”.

Chee makes clever use of the traditional belief in a “Book of Life”, in which “everything that had ever been or would ever be” is recorded. Many of the characters in the “Sea of Ink and Gold” series challenge the idea that “What is written always comes to pass” and struggle to shape or reshape their destinies. The “secret library manipulating the world” part of the plot is not a particularly original idea. The less common libraries become in real life, the more popular they seem to be in fiction. There is Genevieve Cogman’s enjoyable but rather light-weight “Invisible Library” series and Rachel Caine’s grim and gripping “Great Library” series, which I’ve already recommended (see my November 2015 post on “Ink and Bone”).

Caine’s series has a more interesting central character than “The Reader” does. With her dark hair, golden skin and onyx eyes, Sefia is physically striking but she does seem a rather standard Young Adult Fantasy heroine. She’s brave, intelligent and compassionate but I did feel that I’d read about her before. Melodramatic problems which keep young lovers chastely apart (i.e. she’s human, he’s a vampire) are also standard in Paranormal Romance. There are plenty of obstacles for the two pairs of star-crossed lovers in this series but “The Reader” did score highly with me for its sensitive portrayal of a slowly developing relationship between two damaged young people – Sefia and Archer. Be warned that there is a lot of violence in this story. Some of it is comic-book style (high-leaping, bullet-stopping assassins) but Chee does explore the physical and mental effects of the horrific violence that Archer has both endured and inflicted.

You might assume that most of the violence in this story would be centred on the pirate-characters but the crew of the Current of Faith are the nicest, kindest, most equal-opportunity pirates ever to sail the seas. These freedom-loving outlaws never do anything as dreadful as the Guardians, who claim to be acting for the good of society. Captain Reed himself is an ambiguous character, obsessed with escaping the anonymity of death through daring deeds which will be remembered for ever. His adventures “for treasure and glory” at the edge of the known world are my favourite parts of “The Reader”. They are wonderfully romantic and inspire some of Chee’s best writing but also develop the theme of what kind of stories we choose to tell about ourselves and others.

“The Reader” isn’t a perfect book but it contains some dazzling scenes, such Sefia and Lon’s plunges into the rippling, shifting Illuminated World and Reed’s encounters with an island-sized turtle, the Cursed Diamonds of Lady Delune, and the ruby-red eyes of the dead. I’m still not sure if Chee will succeed in weaving all the strands of her plot together to create a satisfying conclusion but that uncertainty is part of what makes “Sea of Ink and Gold” an exciting read. Until next time…


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….