I loved The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. The Wall of Storms (WoS) is not just a brilliant follow up, but one of the greatest novels I’ve read. There are the roots of Chinese literary influences, but those are the seeds Liu uses to launch into something that is wholly his own, adventurous in a silkpunk fantasy teeming with wildly creative ideas. Just as the language written in Ano logograms necessitates a beauty inherent in its structure, Wall of Storms is “gracefully” written, a lyricized poetry of war that points to a master craftsman painting narrative lines with precision and a unique style. Following victory in the Chrysanthemum-Dandelion Wars, Kuni Garu is now Emperor Ragin. As the emperor’s responsibilities increase, those around him vie for influence and maintaining power is often just as difficult as seizing it. Ragin has to take the longer view on succession. This is no ordinary plan he has in mind though as he has a surprising successor in mind. “History is the long shadow cast by the past upon the future. Shadows, by nature, lack details.”
It’s those details Wall of Storms illuminates as much of the opening of the book focuses on a young woman named Zomi. The strategist who walked away from all of his titles, Luan Zya, is marred by the guilt of advising the Emperor to betray his friend, Mata Zyndu, even though it was for the greater good. Luan takes Zomi on as his pupil and their philosophical forays form a garden in which ideologies spar and the ethical quandaries of the past battle for meaning. Their discussions are set to the backdrop of some fantastic worldbuilding, as nuanced and grand as the schools of thought they explore (I love the descriptions from the sea crubens to the ecosystems of the local flora). Intercutting between the imperial examinations and the past, Zomi’s own struggles reflect the daily struggle of its people. There are many stories passed through the generations and I loved the childhood fable of the hundred flowers which is a parable for the one of the core themes in the book. In explaining how the “animals and plants become selected for the calendar,” an orchid explains its plight to the god of war:
“We also fight our war against hail and storm, against drought and deprivation, against the sharp blade of the weeding hoe and the poisonous emanations of the herbicide-sprayer. We also have a claim on time, and we deserve a god who understands that every day in the life of the common flower is a day of battle.”
Ideas thrive, take foot, and blossom- or are weeded out. Relationships are the key to weathering the storms that surround them. The Emperor is trying to carry out a balancing act of maintaining power and giving enough independence to his subjects so they can rule effectively and adapt to their circumstances. Zomi often steals the show, as in her revolutionary suggestions for improvement during the exams. She wants to make a name for herself without her teacher’s support, so she hides his identity. But the Emperor figures it out quickly, recollecting the old conversations he had with his old strategist and seeing it reflected in his fiery new student. That moment illustrates their closeness, and at the same time is a good example of the second book’s relationship with the first, an ever-evolving connection that has more meaning with each perusal. (For those who might be murky on some of the details of Grace, WoS does a great job bringing readers up to speed and giving enough information to understand the stakes.)
A rebellion breaks out in Tunoa, but that’s only part of the problem when a horde of “barbarians” attacks from the north. Are they the immortals of Mapidere? The emperor’s son, Prince Phyro, is doughty and intelligent. But when besieged, it’s his sister, Princess Thera who has to rescue him. She carries out a bold plan, arriving by airship, leaping out by herself, landing by balloon. “Like a dandelion seed, the woman slowly spiraled down and landed on top of the walls of Zyndu castle.” She stirs the attackers with a brave speech and uses “magic” to thwart them.
Her arc intertwines with Zomi’s, and is as compelling as the political typhoons that batter them. As she states:
“We’re dyrans streaking past each other in the vast deep, but our shared lightning-flash will illuminate the darkness ahead until we are embraced by the eternal storm.”
I wrote in my earlier review of Grace of Kings that it was that “horticulture of the saga is in part the Chinese epics of the Warring States period and the decline of the Qin Dynasty.” While there is a historical connection with the Xiongnu invasion during Liu Bang’s reign, WoS is not bound by that history, but uses it like the wind on the air balloons, taking readers to all new heights and destinations.
I’ve long been a fan of Ken Liu’s work and I consider his collection, The Paper Menagerie, one of the greatest I’ve ever read. My fear of including any spoilers prevents me from delving too much into the plot, but I will say, I was enthralled from beginning to end.
One of my favorite sections in Wall of Storms is when Luan Zya describes “the Ano logograms” as “the most sophisticated machines ever devised for working with ideas.” Language is the tool by which we discover, craft, and build new ideas. The concept seems so simple and yet is so ingenious in the way it recontextualizes our understanding of language. Wall of Storms is one of those constructions, an epic book that will challenge your notions of what constitutes the traditional “epic.” It plays with tropes, shatters them, weaves them back together with a moxie befitting of the cast of the book. Ultimately, its power lies in the way it helps us navigate the storms of existence, a perpetual climb up a wall with seemingly no end, that marks both our divine potential, and our all too vulnerable humanity.