Ken Liu has quite the reputation as a short story writer. I haven’t read any of his short stories, but I enjoyed the first book in The Dandelion Dynasty, The Grace of Kings, and I loved his translation of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem. The promise Liu showed in The Grace of Kings is still present in The Wall of Storms, but unfortunately it’s weighed down by structural problems that should have been fixable.
The Dandelion Dynasty is nothing if not ambitious in scope, a laudable trait. The revolution of The Grace of Kings is over. The old emperor is long gone, the Hegemon vanquished, and Kuni Garu is secure in the throne as the emperor Ragin. His biggest concern is keeping his three children in line, and sorting out the succession. It is not to last.
The primary problem is structural. These issues should have been caught by Liu’s editor (Joe Monti, I believed, who launched Saga Press and puts out a lot of good work).
The first issue is with how the Lyucu invasion. The invasion by the Lyucu provides the tension to keep the story moving along for a large chunk of the book. The Lyucu are a Mongol-analogue (more on that later) from beyond the titular Wall of Storms that rings and protects the continent of Dara. The impending invasion casts a pall over everything that happens in the book before and helps drive the reader forward. The marketing team understood this, mentioning the Lyucu in the copy, as have most reviewers. Liu doesn’t fully appreciate it. The actual foreshadowing within the book is to limited and oblique (references to the original fleet sent by the old emperor, and Kuni Garu’s old scholarly ally Luan Zya’s own expedition). The let the first part of the book drag for me; I rushed through the Lyucu chapters (it took me two full months to read this book, obscenely long for me, even for a book this thick). I loved those Lyucu chapters, but they break up the book, taking us away from Dara for too long. I think the Lyucu chapters should have been interspersed throughout (not necessarily breaking chronology—the Lyucu chapters are heavy on flashback anyway). This would have kept things fresh by switching between continents/macro storylines as well as POVs/micro storylines, it would have improved the pacing, and it would have ratcheted up the tension.
My other structural complaint is related. The first part of the book is driven by court intrigue. Specifically, by the machinations of Empress Jia. I didn’t find the machinations themselves terribly engrossing. Jia envisions a world of ministers, not warriors, and one ruled by her preferred successor. One problem is that that looks terribly stupid with foreknowledge of the invasion. The other is that she gives no consideration to the cost. Transaction costs: always a thing. In fact, she commits considerable evil in the pursuit of her goals. Which is fine, but I’m not sure if Liu views her as a villain, and she comes off kind of flat. I hate her but I don’t love to hate her. The bigger problem is that her machinations simply disappear when the Lyucu arrive. They aren’t enough to drive the story forward early in the book, and just when they could really jack things up, Liu bails. And so misses on the opportunity to have his heroes fight against political intransigence to meet the threat, a grand epic fantasy tradition from The Lord of the Rings to The Wheel of Time.
The two related issues result in a big structural problem that is my biggest complaint. But there is also a character problem. Most of the many, many characters from The Grace of Kings are still around, but have little to do and gum things up a bit. For the most part, the new characters can’t pick up the slack. Princes Timu and Phyro are pretty dull. Princess Thera is the only interesting royal child. Thera and Luan Zya’s protégé Zomi are the saving grace, character-wise. At least Kuni Garu is still around, although he at one point was responsible for my putting the book down for what had to have been a solid week (he redeems himself).
Which is not to say that The Wall of Storms is a bad book. The issues I highlight are so frustrating in part because they seem so fixable. And they are equally balanced by all of the good. The weird tech that I can’t describe with any term other than Liu’s “silkpunk” is still present and still advancing. There are some really great battle scenes, usually won by the general, de facto or de jure, who can think of a new angle. The Lyucu are one of the more fascinating Mongol-analogues I’ve seen (I talked quite a bit about Mongol analogues in fantasy in this essay). Liu creates an entire fantasy anthropology, envisioning a different sort of steppe society that proves nigh unstoppable in battle (fire-breathing dragons help).
The big question is: do I pick up book 3?
3.5 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of The Wall of Storms via NetGalley.