(2016) Ken Liu, Head of Zeus, £8.99, pbk, 858pp, ISBN 978-1-784-97327-8
I am a big fan of Ken Liuís work. His short story collection, The Paper Menagerie was something I reviewed for this site last year, so I was always likely to seize any opportunity to look at his longer fiction.
Wall of Storms is the sequel to Grace of Kings, the first of Ken Liuís Dandelion Dynasty trilogy, a steampunk or Ďsilkpunkí epic narrative. Unfortunately, the first book reveals flaws in Liuís previously immaculate writing. The weighty tome describes a vast fantasy empire, based on the Han Dynasty in China, but fails to ignite, as characters move around the different locations, following their agendas without ever rising from their archetypes. Liuís work is precise and meticulous, but dry and static, unless the incredibly detailed world building is something that you look for in a novel.
In Wall of Storms, once known as the bandit king, Kuni Garu, is now Emperor Ragin of Dara. He has successfully ruled the island archipelago for six years. But now that Kuniís sons are old enough to be given official responsibilities, the political intrigue between individuals begins in earnest.
The story starts with the royal children Timu, Phyro, Thera and their younger sibling Fara in a tavern, the Three-Legged-Jug, listening to stories of the warrior Hegemon Mata Zyndu, who was betrayed by Kuni Garu in their struggle against Emperor Mapidiere. This layering is something Liu does to provide a context for exposition and there is something the Canterbury Tales about the way in which it all fits together.
Another tavern patron claims the stories are treasonous towards the new Emperor and threatens to betray everyone to Emperor Ragin. This situation is used to introduce in a new character, Zomi Kidosu, a young woman who also happens to be in the tavern and is in Pan to sit the newly formed Imperial Examinations.
Zomiís introduction continues through the entire first half of the book. In flashback, we are told of her past and childhood as a peasant, her travels with Luan Zya and finally the journey she takes to get to the Imperial Examinations. These moments are interspersed with current chapters which are used to show how both Dara and the other characters have changed over the years since the first book took place.
The second part of Wall of Storms has more pace, with the focus shifting towards a rebellion taking place within Dara and the sudden appearance of invaders from the north which provides an external focus and threat. Emperor Ragin, Empress Jia, Consort Risana, the Emperorís children, Zomi and others have to defend their kingdom from the inside and out.
Wall of Storms distinguishes itself from its predecessor in its connection with its characters, but this is still a long and slow meal of a book. A reader of this series needs patience and dedication to the vast scale and immersive quality of the landscape. Where other writers, like Raymond Feist or Melanie Rawn might take their time over a series of novels, Liu is packing a huge story into three huge volumes. To accompany this, he has created a massive cast of characters to populate Dara and manages to differentiate them, giving each a unique voice.
Liuís prose is excellent, if occasionally verbose and at times the pace of his work can suffer for this. However, there is a poetry to his work, and this works in a similar, but different way to Steven Eriksonís prose. I expect it will also divide fantasy readers between those who love the Dandelion Dynasty and those who do not.
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