Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Wall of Storms - Ken Liu

Wall of Storms is the second in the Dandelion Dynasty series from Ken Liu. I quite enjoyed the first in the series when I picked it up last year, and Liu has recently put out a top-flight short story collection as well.

Wall of Storms opens in a world somewhat changed from that of Grace of Kings. One of our protagonists is now Emperor of the archipelago of Dara, and so we spend a bit more time looking over the political side of things and, at least initially, a little less in epic battles. Part of those politics, though, is changing Dara. The Emperor is in favour of a meritocracy, instituting an examinations system which will, in theory, allow the rise of a meritocracy. There’s a tension and debate around what exactly defines merit though, and that helps shape some of the discussions in the text. Alongside this another discussion is running about gender within the Empire – with the rise of women into key positions, and efforts to propagate this change further down in the institutional hierarchy.  The Empire is still in a state of flux – now that it has been spun into being, it’s trying to work out what exactly it is. These discussions around worth, the role of gender and – as an overarching theme – the cost and benefit of institutional government compared to one tied together by personal ties of loyalty – are intriguing, and the characters which one finds on all sides of the arguments are given the room to make their points plausibly and in interesting ways.

But it’s not all exciting philosophical debates – we’re also shown new parts of the world, and Liu has an eye for the intimate and the grand which make his locales feel like a lot more than words on a page. From the towering cyclones of the aforementioned Wall of Storms, to the plants flowering on the banks of a dormant volcano, we’re shown Dara in splashes of living colour. It’s interesting to note how circumscribed the world of Dara really is – as the story gets rolling, we’re shown that the way things are is, firstly, not the way it has always been, but part of a political and social process – and that there may be other things in heaven and earth than the Empire of Dara can dream of.

The characters – well, the cast is, as it was in the first novel, sprawling. There’s a lot of old favourites here, but they’re running alongside new characters. The ever enjoyable Kuni Garu is back, settling into his role as an incisive Emperor. There’s some screen time for some of his companions from the previous text as well. Jia and Risana are back as Kuni’s wives – both with children of their own, and both trying to shape those children, and in some instances the Empire around them, to reflect what they think is best for their people. Jia in particular gets time on the page – a woman determined to do what she thinks is right, and also prepared to do some fairly despicable things in order to make that happen.  She’s contrasted, in a sense, with Gin Mazoti, now Marshal of Dara – a hard-hitting general with a talent for war, an ironclad sense of honour – though she doesn’t have much in the way of talent for politics. Still, her clashes with Jia make for compelling reading, as both are determined to do what they think is best – they’re just in disagreement over what that would be.

There’s a fair bit to smile about in this book, but it does approach matters with a less comedic tone than its predecessor. This is perhaps seen best in the rise of the Imperial children. They all have their parts to play – and the novel spanning several years allows the reader to see the children grow up, to see them moulded by the pressures that they, their family and their Empire are under. It feels like women have a bit more room to grow in this sequel – and the Emperor’s daughters are a good example. Watching Thera, for example, shift from an impulsive, intelligent child into a collected, focused teenager is a complex delight. That she has a serious amount of narrative agency, and struggles to define herself to, well, herself, keeps it interesting. She’s joined by a scholar, a survivor of the Imperial examinations, having come from a less than privileged background – watching the two work through matters of class and gender, filling their previous certainties with doubt – ell, the dialogue is smart, punchy and well written, but the relationship between the characters, the burgeoning warmth, the moments of coolness, the misunderstandings and understandings – they make the relationship feel real.

Those two are by no means the only interesting members of the cast – the antagonists are given plenty of room to establish themselves as well. To keep things spoiler-free, those we see can be utterly appalling, but there’s a context which makes them possible to empathise with, and I’m hoping we’ll see more of them in future.

The plot is a jigsaw, filled with smaller sub stories. It has a rhythm to it, a lyricism. There’s parts which are perhaps gentler, where the fate of nations is decided by a word, or by force (or otherwise) of personality. There’s also moments of tension, of raw peril, of betrayal – and the sweeping strokes of burgeoning warfare. Like a lava flow, the plot begins slowly, carefully, but builds momentum, and by the close it’s unstoppable, and the world of Dara is changing dramatically.

In the end, this is a book to pick up if you enjoyed The Grace of Kings. Coming to it without that context, it works, but you’re missing out. Wall of Storms though is a worthy sequel – a detailed world, interesting characters with real depth, and a plot with something of both truth and consequences. 

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