The Grace of Kings is an epic fantasy novel with strong historical and cultural influences from the East. It is absolutely teeming with interesting characters, each of whom have their own backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses, alliances, and agendas. It tells the story of a massive civil war following the death of the first emperor to unit 7 fractious states. There are a dizzying number of factions and the plot is deliciously tangled and unpredictable. Best of all, there is also a cast of gods—each one the patron of one of the competing states—who have sworn not to intervene directly but who do their best to help or hinder the mortals in order to further their own feuds, squabbles, and rivalries.
Two things kept the story from achieving true greatness for me, however. First: it was far too diffuse. The blurb I read suggested that it was the story of an epic friendship, but in fact there are several pairs of friends throughout the story and it took me a very long time to figure out which one the blurb was referring to. The two friends who start a peasant rebellion by forging a divine prophecy and are then split when the one becomes a king and the other does not? The two brothers who end up on either side of one the book’s countless feuds? The two conspirators who usurp the throne by forging an order from the dead emperor requiring his oldest, most competent son to commit suicide so that they can install an easily controlled puppet instead? The two friends—who call each other brother—who end up leading the largest rebellious faction against the imperial forces? There’s a lot going on.
In fact, the character perspectives switch so often that for long periods of time I wasn’t sure who the book was about. Even characters who might survive for a chapter or less were given painstaking backstories. You’d think that would be a good thing, but to me it just highlighted the difference between the idea of a story and the idea of a history. In many ways, this book read more like the latter: a long series of assassinations, battles, schemes, sieges, coronations, invasions, and so forth that you might be expected to take a test on at the end.
In particular, the lead female character gets a prophecy about who she should marry, noting that he will cause her great heartache, and so you’re expecting some kind of epic love story between the two. And, given the facts of their relationship, it’s possible to see how it could have been written that way. But it wasn’t. It was much too dispassionate and cold. You are told an endless series of facts about their relationship, but by and large there’s almost no emotional stakes and instead of high romance you just end up with a complicated, ambiguous, open relationship that reminded me a lot more of a sociological case study than a love story.
The second issue I had—besides the story being drowned out by diffusion of details across a cumbersome cast of characters—was that a lot of the key stories were ripped a little too directly from history and legend. Want to show someone is brilliant? Describe how they use a square, a circle, and some randomly thrown rocks to calculate pi. That’s OK, I guess. What irked me more was the calling a deer a horse story. It’s a great story. So great that it has its own Wikipedia entry. Several of the books key poems were also modified version of real poems, although in that case there was attribution at the end. On their own, that would have been fine, but the cumulative effect of so much bald reuse was off-putting. Everyone steals, but you’ve got to make it your own.
For all that, the ending of the story was appropriately legendary: well-conceived and well-told. It was unforgettable. And so don’t get me wrong, this is a great book. It just happens to be a great book encased in a thick cocoon of fluff.