The second book of Ken Liu’s fantasy epic has alternated between my bookshelf and my hands for the past week. It came out fourteen months ago, but since this isn’t a book blog as such, readers get my literary reviews as I read them.
I liked the first book well enough. First the good:
- The editing seems deft, but for one small stumble–three numerals embedded in a word. Computers can’t do it all, but they might catch stuff like that if a keen-eyed beta reader misses the figures.
- You can read this book and pretty much skip the first. A few characters here were not quite as I remembered them in the earlier tome.
- New characters are well-developed along with the old, a next generation begins to ascend and is both clever and susceptible to trickery.
- The plotting is quite deft, and the twists and turns are pleasing.
- Little bits from a wide range of contributors, a mix of imitation and adaptation on the whole: Westeros, wuxia, Homer, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, technology manuals …
Significant or not, some observations:
- 850 pages is not for the faint of heart. The maps and character lists are nearly required, at least for the first few hundred pages. I don’t agree with the necessity of writing a huge book with so many significant persons to follow, but I said that about the first in the series. A story this complicated and heavily populated probably benefits more as a film effort, which I hear is in the works. If that isn’t done well, this will seem like an imitation of Game of Thrones, which certainly has made a few people a lot of money.
- The antagonists, and occasionally their foes, are written as committing the most heinous and immoral acts imaginable. But Mr Liu isn’t satisfied with cardboard characters. Everybody gets a backstory. The reader understands acts of depravity, even if they remain repulsive.
- There’s an important distinction between a person being clever and being wise. Wisdom is hard to find in this universe.
- The title of the book suggests the political phenomena of corruption and war. But there’s also the introduction of the physical manifestation of this wall, which is made to be a key plot point. It seems a contrived point, more so than the emergence of egg-laying, mammalian fire-exhaling dragons. Maybe these contrivances get explained in future books.
- Speaking of future books, there appears to be no end in sight for this series. This series is essentially a soap opera set amongst the 1%, so thanks to being very well-written, it may have legs for generations.
Final verdict? If you like fantasy epics with good characters that run for hundreds or even a few thousand pages, this work is exceedingly good. Better than most of what’s out there. I happen to think Ken Liu is a better writer than George R. R. Martin. If he were less imitative of lesser authors, I think this series would improve.