Tearing Beloved Characters Apart Like Scrap Paper: Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings

Stephen King once demonstrated the mastery of his craft by killing seven people in short succession.

That makes it sound like Stephen King is a serial murderer, a statement I’m not backing off of.  What he did in Under the Dome – which wasn’t even one of his better books – was to do the impossible for most writers.  Which is to say that Stephen would create a fully-fledged character in under 800 words, a grungy and real and believable and likeable hitchhiker with a backstory and a need to get out of this damned town that had blackened his eye and got the local police chief on his case.  The ideal lead for a book because even knowing them for this little time you wanted to follow him through the next 1,000 pages to see what happened to him –

– and WHAM, he got killed by the eponymous Dome.

So you got to the next character, a pilot who’s trying to wind up a messy love affair but dealing with the complexity of still being in love, and WHAM, killed by the Dome.

And the next character, what a lovely person, and WHAM, killed by the Dome.

It was like watching a masterwork artist flip through his sketchpad, scribbling in heartbreaking portraits in loving detail in less time than it took you to swig your coffee, and then he’d rip them up and toss them aside.  And it was all to good effect, ultimately – after watching that many people killed by what was an admittedly-ludicrous plot device (an alien Dome dropped over a small town!), it felt like a tragedy.  And that callousness made you jumpy for everyone else throughout the rest of the books when the true lead characters finally survived long enough for you to say “Howdy.”

But if you’re a writer, you know how damned hard it is to create someone who feels real, and is sympathetic enough that you want to see what happens to them.  Some people spend decades trying to pull that off, and never achieve it once.  And there’s Stephen King, creating people so utterly believable that he might well have crushed them personally in a car wreck, and he’s doing it so effortlessly that he can just do it at will.  As a toss-off.

I never thought I’d see anyone else do something comparable until I read Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings.

Which is not to say The Grace of Kings is like Stephen King at all – it isn’t.  It’s been compared to an Asian Game of Thrones, which is a marketing shorthand I crawl at, because Game of Thrones feels like a purposely shitty world, whereas Ken’s world has moments of genuine hope and love, it’s just ruled by increasingly dysfunctional people.

And Ken does not create characters in the way that Unca Stevie does.  Stephen King creates his characters in the moment – a blackened eye, a rustling pocket with only a crumpled dollar bill, a hopeless wave at a passing car.  Whereas Ken repeatedly stops the story and says, “Have a flashback to this character’s entire life history, from A to Z.”

Which sounds stupid and clumsy and amateurish.  According to every writing manual in existence on this planet, it shouldn’t work.  But Ken is a master writer, having won literally every science-fiction award possible for his short stories, and when he sets out to break a rule he shatters it like cordwood.

Because Ken has mastered the essentials of story.  In a few sentences, he can tell you about a character who has experienced something where you go Yes, I understand this person, I would do the same thing, and so when you hear about the second-best philosopher at the school, the one who’s studied so hard to be the best and yet is repeatedly outdone by the shining student who never works for anything and yet is just genius, you feel that tug.  And then Ken deepens this sketch by outlining the awkward ways in which people try to compliment this poor second-best schmuck, complimenting his fine form without once ever expressing any enthusiasm for the work he’s spent years creating, then suggesting he study the golden child of the school for inspiration, and you understand yes, okay, I get why this man would be seethingly obsessed.

Then you hear about how he mastered politics because philosophy wasn’t working for him, and rose high in the bureaucracy to be the second-hand man of the King himself, and when he got the opportunity he undermined his old golden boy, disfavored him in the palace, got that stupid jerk thrown into jail – and yet the Golden Boy never blamed this second-rate philosopher, in fact seemed to adore his old friend, welcomed him into his cesspit of a prison, never suspecting who was causing him all this trouble at all…

Then the second-rate philosopher gets his head chopped off by an invading barbarian force, and you find out the story is about what happens to the Golden Boy.

At least until something bad happens to the Golden Boy.

Grace of Kings is an epic fantasy saga, but I tend to think of it as “Poor management techniques backed up with swords.”  With so many characters, time and time again we see rulers distracted from the details that actually allow empires and armies to function – focusing on revenge instead of politics, focusing on politics instead of provisions for the army, focusing on provisions instead of strategy, focusing on strategy instead of discipline.  Running an empire is a hugely complex task in the world of Grace of Kings, and while there are a lot of idiots in the mix – as you’d expect – the challenge of the characters is getting everything right, and you can’t quite blame people for not realizing what’s important until the blade is about to fall.

More importantly, people’s mistakes and their triumphs are deeply rooted in character.  Yes, the vicious warlord may be causing problems for himself by burning the cities he conquers, thus creating greater resistance, but on the other hand if he didn’t have that ruthless willingness to drive his army into the teeth of unspeakable violence, he’d never have won any battles.  It’s a complex balance of people creating politics, and Ken pulls it off with – *cough* – grace.

Now, for me, this story was new, because it’s based on an Asian saga I am not familiar with – much like Western stories tend to be based around King Arthur.  But I’m told by people who know the original that it’s still a worthy and unique take on it.  And I enjoyed the heck out of it, because yes, like Under the Dome, there are characters who do survive – but like Game of Thrones, you’re never entirely certain which ones will make it.

It’s out in a few weeks, and I might contemplate reserving my copy now, if I were you.

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