I was lucky enough to pick up The Grace of Kings when it was on sale as an ebook, since it had been on my list of things I wanted to read ever since I first heard about it - this is one of those books which is quite intimidating in paper format, so sometimes the ebook is the best way to approach those tomes!
Ken Liu's short stories have always been something I'd enjoyed and, like a number of other writers, I was interested to see what his writing would be like at novel-length. I think my enjoyment of The Grace of Kings was probably affected (for the better) by my ongoing love of Chinese period martial arts movies. As a result, the many battle scenes seemed to work in my mind as set pieces from those kinds of films, as did the ongoing interactions between characters in more peaceable times.
The novel starts with the reign of a ruthless emperor who has recently conquered all of Dara and is attempting to rule it, only to become obsessed with his own mortality and impressing vast numbers of the populace to be worked to death to create his mausoleum. He has also either killed or uprooted a large number of the noble families who opposed him and shipped them off to various parts of his new domain, hoping this way to undermine any plans to unseat him but also fostering the implacable hatred of one particular family - the Zyndu family, reduced to two survivors, sees the younger of the two (Mata) brought up essentially for the purpose of toppling that empire, no matter what it takes.
Our first encounter with one of the main characters, the initially feckless Kuni Garu, comes as he witnesses an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the emperor and is impressed by the bravery of the man undertaking it. When the emperor eventually dies, his servants have manipulated the succession in order that his heir is still a child and they can run everything with him as their puppet. Little attention is given to the welfare of the empire and the people within it, and Kuni gets dragged into one of the many groups of bandits who essentially try and make things better, at least for themselves.
For a while, Mata and Kuni are allies, each playing off the strengths of the other - Mata is a superb strategist and physically powerful warrior, while Kuni is much better at dealing with people and winning the 'hearts and minds' aspect of warfare. So, when they eventually fall out - one of Kuni's schemes giving him control of the empire when Mata believes he is the one who deserves to rule instead - the mistrust and outright hatred between them is even more powerful. Mata's image of himself is based on believing he has something of a god-given right to rule and quite a hierarchical view of 'how things should be', but in reality he is less than able where the day-to-day administration of the provinces he rules is concerned.
Initially, The Grace of Kings starts out as a bit of a sausage fest, as all the main characters except for Kuni's extremely capable wife Jia are men. This improves quite a bit as the story goes on with the introduction of Gin, who rises to become Marshal as a result of her strategic and leadership abilities, and a couple of other female characters. If you're wondering where the 'epic fantasy' element comes in then there is also a role played by the various gods and goddesses of Dara, who like to interfere in what is going on and promote their favourites.
Anyway, on the whole I enjoyed this, though there were a few places where I thought it dragged a little, and I probably would have been flicking back to a map of Dara if I'd been reading it in paper format. However, epic fantasy isn't really as much of a thing for me as it used to be, so I don't know that it's something I'll want to re-read in the future. For those who're interested, the sequel (The Wall of Storms) is supposed to be coming out in October 2016.