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The Grace of Kings and The Dark Forest. Book reviews

December 3, 2015

The Grace of Kings

The Grace of Kings and The Dark Forest are remarkable books not only for the depth and breadth of their story telling, but also because they so successfully hold a mirror up to humanity and make a reader consider who we are and where we fit into the scheme of things. In this respect these books are excellent examples of how fantasy and science fiction writing are able to explore some important issues both in human behaviour and the importance of making wise choices when there are more than individual interests at stake.

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, published by Head of Zeus.

Emperor Mapidéré has succeeded in bringing the whole of Dara, an archipelago, under his brutal rule. But when the Emperor dies, the time is ripe for unrest, with the gods overseeing the whole epic struggle. Heading up the rebellion is the initially hedonistic Kuni Garu, finally coming into his own as a self-styled leader, and the remarkable Mata, a man with double pupils whose aristocrat family were destroyed by the late emperor.

After reading Ken Liu’s elegant short stories and his excellent translation of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem I was keen to read his début novel The Grace of Kings. His writing has a fierce beauty that can only come from telling a story as if it is a work of folklore. Any reader who has enjoyed Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey or the much later Sagas of Icelanders will feel a sense of familiarity with the rhythm and heft of the narrative that Liu lays out with such fluidity. The gods are seen to vie with each other and oversee the epic events unfolding across an enormous canvas, both geographically and in terms of human endeavour and psychology. All the world is here, with loyalty, friendship, love, cruelty and betrayal as some of the main themes. People who start out with the best intentions become corrupted by power. Those who have been cruelly treated plot a subtle and patient revenge from within. Political conniving is layered on cunning political conniving.

It is an ensemble cast of characters, although Kuni and Mata are the story’s two lynchpins. They are an interesting pair, as one is more inclined to survive by outwitting his opponents while the unnaturally large and strong Mata prefers to tackle them head on.

Liu achieves a wonderful balance between sudden and devastating changes in the plot and providing underlying stability, for example Kuni’s determined and resourceful wife Jia. But as you can never be sure where Liu’s story telling is going, The Grace of Kings makes for a superbly rollercoaster ride both in terms of action and emotions.

The Dark Forest

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen, published by Head of Zeus

This is the second in Cixin Liu’s superb trilogy. We now know that there is other intelligent life out there and they’re on their way. The problem is, when they get here humankind will be exterminated. We have four hundred years to find a solution. But our intergalactic enemy, the Trisolarans, are already monitoring us so thoroughly that only our inner thoughts are safe from them. So maybe that’s the answer…

The Three Body Problem was merely a warm up for The Dark Forest, but it already had me on edge. The thought that we had alerted another life form to our presence and that we were not going to be advanced enough to successfully repel them, even given we had four hundred years, is very unsettling. It makes for a very interesting philosophical debate, because do we decide that those of us alive now just carry on living our lives because we will be dead by the time of the invasion so it won’t concern us, or are responsible enough not to want our ancestors to experience the eradication of human-kind first hand?

Thus far human’s curation of our planet has been less than exemplary, so the first hurdle to overcome is uniting the people of Earth. Not a simple task because we are always at war with one another. But there does appear to be enough of a collective will to try to overcome all these obstacles and deal with the invasive monitoring of every piece of text and communication by our future conquerors, using microscopic particles called sophons which can also interfere with experiments.

The answer is to use Wallfacers (so called because this was the name for meditators in the ancient East) who will formulate strategies entirely in the mind which is inaccessible to the sophons.

Three of the Wallfacers are people of note; the third, Luo Ji, is an unknown who appears to care more about using the unlimited funds at his disposal in hedonistic pursuits than finding a solution to the crisis. And yet it is clear that the Trisolarans have already staged an assassination attempt (through the humans they have recruited to their cause) before Luo Ji was recruited to the project.

Cixin Liu’s writing still remains as fresh as it did for The Three Body Problem and really instils a sense of uncomfortable uncertainty in the reader because of the apparent hopelessness of the situation. The peril feels as real as any cold war spy thriller dealing with an imminent total nuclear war. The strangeness of the terrifying, yet unseen enemy adds another tense layer to a book where the reader is held in a permanent state of uncertainty every bit as much as the characters in the story.

The Grace of Kings was courtesy of Head of Zeus via NetGalley. The Dark Forest is a bought copy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An remarkable firework display of thinking outside the box. Highly appropriate considering that is exactly what the Wallfacer’s are supposed to do.

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