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
Welcome, Ken! Would you share with us your interpretation of the term
â€śsilkpunkâ€ť in fantasy and how it applies to THE GRACE OF
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 â€śsilkpunkâ€ť aesthetic
employs many elements inspired by Chinese and East Asian traditions that Iâ€™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 Asiaâ€”silk,
bamboo, ox sinew, paper, brushesâ€”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 â€śwooden oxâ€ť 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
â€śside storiesâ€ť and the deferral of a "central narrative,â€ś the deliberate use of
an â€ťepic 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
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
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 â€ścapsule summariesâ€ť 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
Two men rebel together against tyrannyâ€”and then become rivalsâ€”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 factionsâ€”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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