I remember as a young teen coming to about forty pages from the end of The Fellowship of the Ring before realizing the book was coming to an end soon, and there weren’t enough pages to resolve the plot. So I confess upfront that I have a thing, mostly negative, about reading several hundred pages only to be left hanging on what-happens-next. I avoid trilogies, series, and stuff like it as a general principle. But I can be flexible.
I’ve also enjoyed Ken Liu’s short fiction the past few years. So when I noticed this title in a public library, I blanched a little when the cover informed me this was first in a series. But I knew I was in for an enjoyable read, if an incomplete one.
First the good.
- Mr Liu is an exceptional writer, and he loses nothing in the move from short story to multi-volume fantasy epic. He achieves a text that reads like a legendary history, not at all puff fantasy.
- This book is the same as other genre efforts. The reader gets a traditional, patriarchal, mostly pre-industrial sword-n-castle epic with interfering gods. There’s a colorful map and a list of characters before chapter one. They are needed.
- This book is different enough. The color is Asian, not European. There are non-“Asian” characters (blacks and redheads), but the props include bamboo, silk, chopsticks, and such.
- As an author, Mr Liu does a lot of correct things. Characters grow and evolve, but are also flawed. Some die. The plotting is excellent. Fantasy memes included, but skillfully handled.
- One typo (“just deserts”) in 600+ pages–editor on the ball.
What drops this book from a rating of near ten to about eight-point-five:
- I think it’s a mistake to write a book with so many characters. Much of the immense supporting cast is killed off, and the various stories about them add a hundred pages, minimum, to what is already a large book. I read this book in about five days earlier this month, and I frequently had to refer to the pages of dramatis personae to keep them straight. To be sure, Tolkien had a lot of characters, too. But his gift was parceling them out over several hundred pages. If Ken Liu had been writing The Lord of the Rings, we would have been treated (for example) to Boromir’s backstory and his lonely journey from Minas Tirith to Rivendell. It would have been entertaining and well-written. But it would have been padding.
- We know war spurs technology. But some inventions were a bit of a stretch, leaping from our 12th century to the 20th. Fantasy is more about characters, and writing real-life people is this author’s gift.
- The gods aren’t very well-developed, and I’m not sure they add a lot to the narrative. More or less, they pledge non-interference. But strange storms, eruptions, and even a nasty whirlpool nudge human events in certain directions and back again.
I still recommend this book for you readers. It’s probably the best work of long fiction I read in 2015. It’s significantly different from any fantasy epic I’ve ever encountered.
On the moral front, the characters struggle with their embrace of the principle that the ends justify the means. Every leader, hero or villain, is seduced in some way by indulging that breach of ethics. The author seems to remain neutral about it. His heroes commit acts, good and bad, and reap logical consequences.