Bill Chats with Ken Liu

Today Ken Liu stops by to answer a few questions about his newest work The Grace of Kings, the first in a series of “Silkpunk” and an ambitiously structured novel that won me over for its change-of-pace narrative construction and original setting, as well for its somewhat rare focus on social and technological change in a fantasy world. We’ll be giving away a copy of The Grace of Kings to one random commenter with a U.S. address.

Bill Capossere: In my review, I mentioned how I’d had a hard time at the start with Grace of Kings, due to its narrative structure, which I described as both episodic and also very nearly a kind of linked-short-story form and which at the outset at least served to distance me a bit more than I prefer in my reading. Oddly enough, the linked-short story “novel” is actually one of my favorite forms, and so I wonder if this was simply a matter of expectations. In the end, I was obviously glad I kept going and quite appreciated the structure (I often wish more fantasy authors would play with structure and form). I have a few questions about this:

a) First, do you think those two characterizations of the structure are fair/accurate and if not, how would you describe the narrative structure?

b) Second, what were your intentions in choosing that structure? And did it present any unexpected challenges?

c) Finally, did you or your editor (s) have any concern readers might respond as I did, or was that not at all an issue?

Ken Liu

Ken Liu

Ken Liu: I’m really glad that you picked up on the novel’s structure, which is something I very much enjoyed playing with during the construction. That said, I want to say that I have a policy of not commenting on whether I agree with a reviewer’s characterization of my choices, since that can come across as argumentative even if that isn’t my intent. So I’ll try to explain what I’m doing from my own perspective.

I wrote The Grace of Kings by taking narrative techniques and tropes from a variety of literary sources, some Chinese, some Western. The reasons for this choice are many — which I’ll elaborate on later — but the basic motivation is to try to carve out a new way to tell a story.

What you describe as the “linked-short story” format is a side effect of doing character introductions and side plots in the style of something like Romance of the Three Kingdoms or The Water Margin. The structure also involves shifting POVs and snap changes in narrative distance, as well as skipping across the timeline in a way that emphasizes negative space. It’s certainly not the way most epic fantasy novels are constructed, and I wanted to make sure that my novel was distinctive in that way.

When you take the risk to try something new, some readers may not like it. That is part of the package.

I also described The Grace of Kings as “pre-modern” or “old-style epic” thanks to that structure (episodic, zooming in and out in time and space), to a relative lack of what I called “interiority” in the presentation of the characters, and the way in which symbols were directly presented and commented upon (the flowers for instance, or Mata crushing an ant underfoot). Again, does this seem like an accurate/fair representation and if so, can you talk about what you were trying to do in terms of form or style in that context?

The Grace of Kings is a re-imagining of a foundational narrative from Chinese literature, the Chu-Han Contention, in the form of an epic fantasy novel. As such, the book shares much more with national epics like The Iliad, the The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Beowulf, and historical romances like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, than a modernist novel. The narrative structure and style deliberately invoke these old traditions while embodying more modern sentiments, and the result is a blend that I hope feels both familiar and (interestingly) strange at the same time.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsPerformance seemed to be a recurring theme throughout the novel, with characters not only taking on performance roles — pretending to be a different gender, in disguise as a beggar, working as a spy, etc. — but also frequently commenting on their own (or others’) performances, as nobles, leaders, fathers, mothers, etc. And of course, all these characters are at their core a “performance” of the author. Assuming this was deliberate, can you speak to the role of performance in the novel?

I think you’ve covered it pretty well in your review as well as here!

I’m not a big fan of writers going out of their way to direct or shape the interpretation of their work. I’m okay with explaining my creative choices, but to spell out the meaning of a recurring motif in the novel feels to me like an intrusion on the reader. Fiction, as a rhetorical mode, presents ideas by different methods than persuasive essays, and I meant to write a novel, not an essay.

One of the aspects of The Grace of Kings I enjoyed was the conflict between the two main characters over the direction of society, with one focused on “tradition” and a return to what was and the other focused on change as a tool to create a different and better future. More typically, we get the former in fantasy (the “return of the king” story) rather than the latter. Was this just a more interesting storyline to you, or did you also see this as a sort of meta-commentary on the genre?

I think there is this general feeling that a lot of fantasy seems to yearn for an idealized past, and the plot of many novels involves a return to the status quo ante after a disruption. I did want to write my novel against that sentiment.

I describe this novel as a “silkpunk” fantasy, and the -punk suffix is intended to convey the idea that revolution, even continuous rebellion, is an important ideal in this world. The plot of the novel (and the overall arc of the series) is about dynamism, change, adaptability, and very much against the notion of a return to an imagined golden age. I think constant evolution, as opposed to stasis, is a more accurate view of history, which tends to inspire much fantasy.

One effect of the wave of change encouraged by Kuni is it allows for the female characters to break out of their traditional constrained roles. Was this just a side effect of a focus on change or was this a deliberate means of allowing a more full role for women in the novel?

Kuni might have implemented some of the policy changes, but the real impetus for the shift comes from the women in the story. While gender issues play an important part in the narrative, they are only one aspect of this notion of “continuous change” that I wanted to convey. Another thing about change is that it’s not a matter of linear progress, but comes in fits and starts, and that provides opportunities for more drama and conflict.

So much fantasy deals with large-scale war and journeys, which historically have been primary vectors of change, and yet the flow or upswell of new ideas as people react to encountering new cultures or to upheaval within their own rarely seems to play a role in fantasy. Would you agree and if so, why do you think we see so little societal change in fantasy? And do you think this is beginning to change (it appears to me that I’ve noticed it becoming more of a focus but that could just be selective memory of recent reading).

I’m not sure I can discern a clear trend in the genre towards more attention being paid to the social effects of massive, disruptive change. It’s possible that the (perhaps perceived) lack of interest in describing social change is related to the yearning for a return to a golden age.

The Grace of Kings (and its sequels), however, is very much interested in the patterns of history and the way events trigger cascading effects. If the society at the end of the book feels pretty much the same as it did at the beginning of the book, I will have failed to do my job.

Another aspect I strongly enjoyed was the setting, which seemed a blend of Oceania and Chinese history/mythology. It was refreshing to get something a little different. A few questions. Why those settings and why a blend? And two, why do you think we see so relatively few non-European settings? Do you think that as the genre gets more and more diverse in its authorship it will inevitably become more diverse in its settings and cultural touchstones?

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI created Dara explicitly to avoid the problems of writing “magical China” stories. The history of the West’s encounters with China from the time of Marco Polo onwards is replete with instances of misunderstanding, Orientalism, and the colonial gaze. Even the very language used to describe certain “core” Chinese or East Asian concepts — e.g., “Chinese dragon,“ ”filial piety,“ ”mandarins” — have been colored by Western-centric misconceptions. The miasma of Orientalism is so thick that I felt it was impossible to re-imagine a foundational Chinese narrative in a “magical China” setting without invoking all the problematic tropes associated with such a setting.

And so, I created Dara, an archipelago, to be as different physically from continental China as possible, and I populated it with new peoples, new cultures, and new languages that are clearly inspired by China, but not “Chinese.” This is a way to pierce through Orientalism and help the reader perceive the story and the characters with fresh eyes. The change in setting led to a cascading wave of changes that freed my narrative, from new military and political strategies to the very metaphors that pepper the speeches of the characters. I think the result is a much more interesting and colorful story.

Similarly, the decision to use a narrative strategy that blends aspects of foundational Western epics with aspects of the Chinese literary tradition allows me to estrange The Grace of Kings from the source material, allowing me to critique the source as well as the epic fantasy genre simultaneously.

Finally, I want to say a few words about the “silkpunk” aesthetic, which shares with steampunk a fascination with technology roads not taken, but is distinguished by a visual style inspired by Chinese block prints and an emphasis on materials primarily of historic significance to East Asia — silk, bamboo, ox sinew, paper, writing brushes — as well as other organic building materials available to seafaring peoples like coconut, whalebone, fish scales, coral, etc. The result is a technology vocabulary that feels more organic and more inspired by biomechanics.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFor instance, the bamboo-and-silk airships compress and expand their gasbags to change the amount of lift and are powered by feathered oars. When illuminated at night, they pulsate and move like jellyfish through an empyrean sea. Similarly, artificial limbs described in the book draw their inspiration from the “wooden ox” of Zhuge Liang in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, being constructed from intricate wooden mechanisms powered by flexible ox sinew.

I also think there are many interesting settings being attempted in epic fantasy now that are not cookie-cutter versions of “magic Medieval Europe.” Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon is an obvious example, as are Kate Elliott’s CROSSROADS trilogy and the new BLACK WOLVES trilogy. I can probably go on to name many more. The genre is expanding in such interesting ways that this is a great time to be reading epic fantasy.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFinally, I’d like to close with two general questions. The first is one I always end my interviews with. Can you recall for us one or two of those magical moments of response to a particular scene in a book or two — those sort of “shiver moments” that make one fall in love with the magic of reading all over again or that we carry with us for years afterward?

Oh, that’s easy. When I read If on a winter’s night a traveler, the moment I figured out what it was doing was magical. I closed the book and cried out in joy. It absolutely changed the way I view reading and the potential for narrative. A similar thing happened when I read Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow and figured out, with great sorrow and dread, what the book was truly about. Understanding that a “gimmick” could have such emotional impact was deeply moving.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAnd secondly is something we just started asking our authors for: a cocktail or food recipe, either related to something you’ve written (say, something Gin might drink or eat), or related to your writing process (“I always find I work better after one or two…”), or just a favorite.

I’m going to dodge this one and say that I think some of the pleasure of reading The Grace of Kings is trying to reverse engineer the dishes described in it. Food plays an important role in defining the world and characterization, and I put some dishes in there that will be fun for readers to figure out.

Thank you very much for having me!

Thanks to Ken for stopping by and providing us with such a thoughtful entry into his world and his process! Readers, comment below for a chance to win a copy of The Grace of Kings (U.S. addresses, please).


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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19 comments

  1. More support for my continued interest to get my hands on a copy of this!

  2. Vida Cruz /

    I love reading about structure in writing. Can’t wait to read this!

  3. Interesting interview, Bill and Ken. Thanks! (And thanks for the other reading recommendations, too.)

  4. Ren Bedell /

    Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin are my two favorite books. I can’t wait to read The Grace of Kings!

  5. Issam /

    Very good interview, i wondered whether or not the character introductions style was partially influenced by The Water Margin and Romance of The Three Kingdoms. I love China’s Four Great Classical Novels and The Grace of Kings definitely gave me satisfaction of a more modern novel that reflects China’s literature. This interview now makes one want to read The Grace of Kings from scratch and analyze the structure some more thanks to his response(s) to your questions. I would love a copy of the book i was only able to read it thanks to my university library but do not own a copy of it. It would be valued as a collection item that i would not want to get rid of.

  6. Melita /

    I’ve been reading various reviews of this book with interest. I look forward to reading it, whether via a copy won here or bought later!

  7. Nice interview. Would love to win a copy of this novel.

  8. This book sounds absolutely delightful! I’d love to sink my teeth into a fantasy novel that isn’t entirely based on white western culture.

  9. michele mccarthy /

    Would love a copy of the book.

  10. Mitchell F. /

    Excellent interview, pumped to read this!

  11. The reviews and interviews make me want this book more and more.

  12. Fascinating and insightful interview – thank you, Bill and Mr. Liu!

  13. I’ve lost count of how many great reviews I’ve read for Grace of Kings. Come to think of it… don’t think there’s been a bad one yet. Loved to get a copy of this!

  14. Nice interview. Thank you.
    And also thank you for a giving us a chance to win a copy of The Grace of Kings.

  15. Yשרםמ /

    Sounds awesome and in line with several other reviews. Looks like a must read!

  16. April /

    I was already interested in reading The Grace of Kings, it was on my to-read list, but this interview with the author’s thoughtful answers has made me want to move it up the queue!

    One thing I’ve always believed about Chinese artisans is that even when they’re making something useful/purposeful, they strive to make it beautiful as well and Ken’s description of the bamboo and silk airships just reinforces that belief, even though this story is set in a fictional place, it was clearly influenced by our world’s Chinese fiction.

  17. Leland /

    So want to read this. Have been intrigued since hearing about it.

  18. Ben /

    I love Ken Liu’s short fiction and I’ve been dying to see what he can do with a longer work ever since I heard a novel was coming.

  19. Neth, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of The Grace of Kings!
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!

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