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Fresh Chat | Ken Liu on Silkpunk, Fantasy, and THE GRACE OF KINGS

The Grace of Kings
Ken Liu




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Dandelion Dynasty #1

April 2015
On Sale: April 7, 2015
Featuring: Kuni Garu; Mata Zyndu
640 pages
ISBN: 1481424270
EAN: 9781481424271
Kindle: B00KU4O1CY
Hardcover / e-Book
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Also by Ken Liu:
Speaking Bones, July 2022
The Veiled Throne, May 2022
The Veiled Throne, November 2021
The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, February 2021

Ken Liu, the only author in the last forty years to receive the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the World Fantasy Award all for one story (The Paper Menagerie, in his case) joins Fresh Fiction today to discuss his debut novel, THE GRACE OF KINGS.

Welcome, Ken! Would you share with us your interpretation of the term “silkpunk” in fantasy and how it applies to THE GRACE OF KINGS?

Thanks for having me!

THE GRACE OF KINGS melds classical Western epic narrative techniques with tropes taken from Chinese historical romances and wuxia fantasies. The “silkpunk” aesthetic employs many elements inspired by Chinese and East Asian traditions that I’ve always wanted to see in fiction: silk-draped airships, soaring battle kites, honor-infused duels that are as much dance as warfare, magical tomes that describe our desires better than we know them ourselves, gods who regret the deeds done in their names, women who plot and fight alongside men, princesses and maids who form lifelong friendships, and, of course, sea beasts that bring about tsunamis and storms but also guide soldiers safely to shores.

The silkpunk aesthetic shares with steampunk a fascination with technology roads not taken, but what distinguishes it is a visual style inspired by Chinese block prints and an emphasis on materials of historic significance to East Asia—silk, bamboo, ox sinew, paper, brushes—as well as other organic building materials available to a seafaring culture like coconut, whalebone, fish scales, corals, etc.

The result is a technology vocabulary that feels more organic and inspired by biomechanics. For instance, the bamboo-and-silk airships in my novel compress and expand their gasbags to change the amount of lift and are powered by feathered oars, which means that 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, constructed from intricate wood-based mechanisms powered by ox sinew.

We would love to know a few reasons why you chose epic fantasy as the form for your first novel.

I generally don't pay too much attention to genre labels. For my first novel, I wanted to tell a story that was important to me, and this turned out to be a re-imagining of a Chinese historical romance in the form of a Western novel.

Historical romances are foundational narratives in the Chinese literary tradition, akin to the way epics like the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and Beowulf are foundational narratives for the Western literary tradition. To transport such a foundational narrative into the framework of a new literary tradition required a massive canvas, a large cast of characters, and a fresh world as important as any of the characters. This happened to map pretty well to the trappings of epic fantasy as a genre.

However, I didn't write the novel with an eye to imitating contemporary epic fantasy novels. Many of the narrative techniques such as extensive reliance on “side stories” and the deferral of a "central narrative,“ the deliberate use of an ”epic voice" and a chorus of gods, are reminiscent of much older storytelling modes like Western epic poetry and Chinese historical romances. At the same time, I injected the novel with a modern sensibility that questions the sources as well as the genre it purports to be in.

You have stated that Western influences like Homer and Chinese storytelling traditions like Sima Qian have both impacted your work. Why did you choose to combine Western elements with East Asian sources for THE GRACE OF KINGS?

I'll note up front that Sima Qian was a historian, but the way he crafted his histories as biographical sketches made them imminently readable. He taught me much about characterization.

I am a child of two literary traditions, and I like to create works that honor both and meld them in a way that highlights the full scope of the human experience. I think all too often we treat literary traditions as though they are exclusive and insular, when in fact most of the world's population are fluent in multiple languages and participate in several literary traditions at once.

THE GRACE OF KINGS is a reimagining of the historical legends surrounding the rise of the Han Dynasty. Can you tell us a bit about the significance of this period in Chinese history?

I'm generally opposed to “capsule summaries” that purport to give the meaning of any period of history. Where the historical facts are not familiar to the audience, such summaries can even do a great deal of harm. I can say, however, that this period of history during the third century B.C.E. was a time of tumultuous change that gave rise to many cultural touchstones and concepts that are of great importance to the Chinese, and it has been re-imagined and re-told many times by writers throughout millennia.

Thank you for joining us on Fresh Fiction today, and we have one more question: What is on your to-read list?

I'm looking forward to Fran Wilde's debut novel, UPDRAFT, which I think of as an epic fantasy featuring engineers. I also have high hopes for Zen Cho's SORCERER TO THE CROWN. Matthew Pearl's THE LAST BOOKANEER promises to be really amazing as well.


Two men rebel together against tyranny—and then become rivals—in this first sweeping book of an epic fantasy series from Ken Liu, recipient of Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.

Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, and shapeshifting gods. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.

Fans of intrigue, intimate plots, and action will find a new series to embrace in the Dandelion Dynasty.




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