A white bird hung still in the clear western sky and flapped its wings sporadically.
Perhaps it was a raptor that had left its nest on one of the soaring peaks of the Er-Mé Mountains a few miles away in search of prey. But this was not a good day for hunting—a raptor’s usual domain, this sun-parched section of the Porin Plains, had been taken over by people.
Thousands of spectators lined both sides of the wide road out of Zudi; they paid the bird no attention. They were here for the Imperial Procession.
They had gasped in awe as a fleet of giant Imperial airships passed overhead, shifting gracefully from one elegant formation to another. They had gawped in respectful silence as the heavy battle-carts rolled before them, thick bundles of ox sinew draping from the stone-throwing arms. They had praised the emperor’s foresight and generosity as his engineers sprayed the crowd with perfumed water from ice wagons, cool and refreshing in the hot sun and dusty air of northern Cocru. They had clapped and cheered the best dancers the six conquered Tiro states had to offer …
Ken Liu says:
The Grace of Kings is a silkpunk epic fantasy that re-imagines the rise of the Han Dynasty in a secondary world archipelago setting.
It’s the story of two unlikely friends, a bandit and a duke, who join together to overthrow tyranny only to find themselves on opposite sides of a deadly rivalry about how to construct a more just society.
The novel features a melding of classical Western epic narrative techniques with tropes taken from Chinese historical romances and wuxia fantasies. The “silkpunk” aesthetic employs many elements inspired by Chinese and East Asian traditions that I’ve always wanted to see in contemporary English fiction: silk-draped airships, soaring battle kites, honor-infused duels that are as much dance as warfare, magical tomes that describe our desires better than we know them ourselves, gods who regret the deeds done in their names, women who plot and fight alongside men, princesses and maids who form lifelong friendships, and, of course, sea beasts that bring about tsunamis and storms but also guide soldiers safely to shores.
The opening scene does two things: introducing the setting and establishing the narrative voice.
The Grace of Kings tells an epic-scaled story through individual characters that readers can empathize with and care about: a street urchin who rises to command tens of thousands under her banner, a ne’er-do-well who discovers his talent for crime as well as politics, a princess who navigates a maze of expectations to preserve the lives of her people, an actress who finds the parallels between kingship and theatre, an aristocratic scholar who is forced into inventing machines of death and plotting warfare … but one of the most important characters of them all is the setting.
The silkpunk aesthetic shares with steampunk a fascination with technology roads not taken, but what distinguishes it is 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 ox” of Zhuge Liang in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, being constructed from intricate wooden mechanisms powered by flexible ox sinew.
The opening scene introduces the reader to this aesthetic gradually: in the following paragraphs, readers will discover that the approaching raptor is really a stringless battle kite, establishing the connection between the organic and the technological. As well, readers are given a preview of a few of the silkpunk wonders that will make more detailed appearance later on in the book.
The narrative voice of The Grace of Kings is also something where I had a lot of fun. It is a deliberate melding of narrative conventions taken from two very different 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 features 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. I wanted to cue the reader to expect something different from what they may be used to, something that should, after an initial period of adjustment, prove the right fit for the story I wanted to tell.
That’s the hook, and I hope you enjoy reading the rest of the novel.
About the author:
Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, he has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.
Besides Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, Saga Press will also publish a collection of his short stories, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, later in the year.
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