Review: The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu

October 6, 2016
Review: The Wall of Storms by Ken LiuThe Wall of Storms by Ken Liu
Series: The Dandelion Dynasty #2
Published by Simon & Schuster on October 4th 2016
Pages: 600
Our reviews of this author: The Grace of Kings, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

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In the much-anticipated sequel to the “magnificent fantasy epic” (NPR) Grace of Kings, Emperor Kuni Garu is faced with the invasion of an invincible army in his kingdom and must quickly find a way to defeat the intruders.
Kuni Garu, now known as Emperor Ragin, runs the archipelago kingdom of Dara, but struggles to maintain progress while serving the demands of the people and his vision. Then an unexpected invading force from the Lyucu empire in the far distant west comes to the shores of Dara—and chaos results.
But Emperor Kuni cannot go and lead his kingdom against the threat himself with his recently healed empire fraying at the seams, so he sends the only people he trusts to be Dara’s savvy and cunning hopes against the invincible invaders: his children, now grown and ready to make their mark on history.

In my review of Ken Liu’s debut, I said it possessed all the epic grandeur, intelligence, and dignity of a Guy Gavriel Kay novel. Now, having read the follow-up, I am starting to wonder if anybody has ever seen the two of them in the same room together. Okay, so I’m kidding – or, at least, half-kidding – but The Wall of Storms is precisely the kind of sweeping, character-driven epic of cultural mythology that so very few authors could attempt, much less manage so successfully.

The first half of the novel (and we’re talking several hundred pages) is largely dedicated to developing a new character who had no role to play in The Grace of Kings. Zomi is a smart, philosophical young woman who thinks and acts in a manner that is disturbingly progressive for an already strained empire. Where her connection to the tale comes in is through Luan Zya, the man who advised the Emperor to betray his best friend for the greater good, and who then walked away from it all. Through alternating chapters we see the progress of the imperial examinations in which Zomi is to take part, and the learnings and journeys she shared with Luan to get there. It makes for an odd beginning to the tale, rather slowly paced, with nothing to advance the overall plot, but it serves to illuminate how the characters and their world have developed over the years between books, providing the justification (or explanation) for the action that drives the second half.

As the second half of the novel beings, a rebellion on one front and an external attack on another pushes an already fragile empire towards collapse. It is here that Princess Thera rises to the occasion, further challenging the world with the unthinkable assertions that a woman may be the best man to defeat these threats and ultimately inherit her father’s throne. At the same time, we have a subtle conflict of ideas between the Emperor’s wife, Jia, and his consort, Risana. Women and ideas are very much at the heart of this book, driving the action just as effectively as Kuni’s banditry and Mata’s martial prowess did the first. That’s not to say this book is all thought and no action. Indeed, the sweeping battles of the second half are breathtaking to behold, and the remarkable silkpunk inventions developed to defend the empire are awe-inspiring.

The Grace of Kings and The Wall of Storms are both books about change. They are about changing people, roles, politics, and ideas. Through them we see an entire world change, from within as well as without, with the only constant being the moral precepts and the heart of warring philosophies. This is a series that works on two levels, with the questions and thoughts deep within it perhaps even more important than the action and dialogue upon the surface.

A book to be savored and enjoyed, The Wall of Storms is one of those rare sequels that manage to improve upon an already near-perfect debut. Wherever Liu takes the story next, you can rest assured it will be somewhere equally fantastic.

Bob Milne
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