A sem­i­nal work

Here’s won­der­ful in­spi­ra­tion for Asian fans and as­pir­ing au­thors of the spec­u­la­tive fic­tion genre.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - Re­view by DAPHNE LEE star2@ thes­tar. com. my

THE Grace Of Kings was my in­tro­duc­tion to Ken Liu. It’s the au­thor’s first novel, pub­lished in 2015, and the first in a planned “silkpunk” ( a vari­a­tion of steam­punk) fan­tasy se­ries called The Dan­de­lion Dy­nasty.

Kings is a spec­tac­u­lar piece of en­ter­tain­ment – am­bi­tious, orig­i­nal and mem­o­rable, the world- build­ing im­pres­sive, the char­ac­ters con­vinc­ing and sym­pa­thetic, and the fan­tasy el­e­ments fresh and sur­pris­ing.

The prob­lem with dis­cov­er­ing an au­thor at the first- novel stage of their ca­reer is you usu­ally are in an agony of an­tic­i­pa­tion, wait­ing for the next book to come out.

For­tu­nately, in Liu’s case, there is a prodi­gious body of prior work in the shape of short sto­ries, novel­las and nov­el­ettes.

On top of that Liu is the trans­la­tor of Liu Cixin’s The Three- Body Prob­lem tril­ogy ( the fi­nal book is out in Septem­ber), the first vol­ume of which was the first trans­lated novel to win the Hugo Award ( 2015).

And then there’s this col­lec­tion, The Pa­per Me­nagerie And Other Sto­ries. Com­pris­ing 15 sto­ries of vary­ing lengths, styles and gen­res ( within the spec­u­la­tive fic­tion spec­trum), it aims to show­case Liu’s devel­op­ment and achieve­ments as a writer of short fic­tion, but must have been a b**** to com­pile con­sid­er­ing the fact that he has pub­lished over 100 sto­ries since 2002.

The in­clu­sion of the tit­u­lar tale would have, of course, been a no- brainer. In 2012 it won all three of the most pres­ti­gious of sci- fi/ fan­tasy prizes: the Ne­bula, Hugo, and World Fan­tasy Awards, and it is eas­ily one of my favourites in this com­pi­la­tion.

In my opinion, Liu’s gifts as a sto­ry­teller shine bright­est in sto­ries such as this magic re­al­ism tale about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween a son and mother.

Whether us­ing science or magic, myth or fan­tasy to give shape to his ideas, Liu’s words are warmest and most true when he is writ­ing about hu­man con­nec­tions – love, friend­ship, blood ties – and the tri­umphs and fail­ings of hu­man na­ture – sac­ri­fice and be­trayal, cru­elty amidst beauty, kind­ness amidst cru­elty.

My other favourites in this book in­clude “All The Fla­vors: Tale Of Guan Yu, The Chi­nese God Of War”, which in­ter­weaves Amer­i­can his­tory and Chi­nese mythol­ogy; “The Litero­mancer”, a seem­ingly gen­tle, com­fort­ing story of friend­ship that es­ca­lates into the dark bit­ter­ness of be­trayal; “Sim­u­lacrum”, which uses the metaphor of an im­age to ex­plore how one’s usu­ally lim­ited per­cep­tions of peo­ple and sit­u­a­tions may con­fuse re­al­ity; “Good Hunt­ing”, which ques­tions and sub­verts the misog­y­nis­tic myth of the Chi­nese huli­jing ( fox spirit); “Mono No Aware” – the ti­tle is the Ja­panese term for the aware­ness of im­per­ma­nence ( from Wikipedia) and the story’s main take­away, for me, is how this aware­ness makes all forms of love a bit­ter­sweet and yet ad­dic­tive ex­pe­ri­ence.

I feel I should also men­tion “The Man Who Ended His­tory: A Doc­u­men­tary”. It’s the fi­nal story ( a novella) in the col­lec­tion and fo­cuses on Unit 731 and the hor­rific med­i­cal ex­per­i­ments that were car­ried out there dur­ing the sec­ond Sino- Ja­panese War.

I had pre­vi­ously only a vague idea of what went on in the Ja­panese re­search base, but now I’m un­likely to ever for­get.

Many are un­aware of such events in his­tory. What we are told is cho­sen based on agen­das steeped in po­lit­i­cal bias and cul­tural prej­u­dice.

“The Man Who Ended His­tory” res­onates strongly at the mo­ment, so soon af­ter the widely- cov­ered Brus­sels ter­ror at­tacks on Tues­day, and the many other Is­lamic State killings ( in Ye­men, in Tur­key, in Nige­ria, in Tu­nisia) that gar­nered no head­lines.

This is not the only story in which Liu of­fers us a view of the for­got­ten ( or even never ac­knowl­edged) past.

“All The Fla­vors” re­mem­bers the Chi­nese com­mu­nity that made up part of the pop­u­la­tion of Idaho Ter­ri­tory in the late 19th cen­tury in Amer­ica; “The Lit­i­ga­tion Mas­ter And The Mon­key King” is ded­i­cated to the vic­tims of the Yangzhou Mas­sacre, which oc­curred dur­ing the Manchu Rev­o­lu­tion in China; and Amer­ica and the Re­pub­lic of China’s joint covert op­er­a­tions against the com­mu­nist party dur­ing the Cold War of the 1960s is fea­tured in “The Litero­mancer”.

Al­though some sto­ries in this col­lec­tion made more of an im­pres­sion on me than oth­ers, all are out­stand­ing and, in my opin- ion, this is chiefly be­cause of the ideas they ex­plore, their var­ied style, and the way the sto­ries’ char­ac­ters are, with­out ex­cep­tion, fully fleshed- out, com­pli­cat­edly nu­anced in­di­vid­u­als – this is an amaz­ing achieve­ment for char­ac­ters in short fic­tion.

I es­pe­cially like how Liu takes a his­tor­i­cal event or a mytho­log­i­cal char­ac­ter and grows it into a thought­ful, un­pre­ten­tious and wholly un­ex­pected tale.

These are sto­ries like no other, and in my opinion, he and Nige­rian spec­u­la­tive fic­tion au­thor, Nnedi Oko­rafor, are two of the 21st cen­tury’s most orig­i­nal cre­ators of fic­tion.

Liu’s book runs to 464 pages and is not to be pol­ished off in one sit­ting, not just be­cause of po­ten­tial eye strain but be­cause it de­serves to be read and savoured slowly.

Apart from how you can’t help but lose your­self in the worlds Liu has cre­ated, these sto­ries also beg to be ex­plored and dis­cussed, their sto­ry­lines and char­ac­ters an­a­lysed, and their mean­ings re­flected on.

If you choose this book for a book group dis­cus­sion, you may want to do a py­jama party ses­sion. ( And serve lots of cof­fee.)

I would rec­om­mend this an­thol­ogy to any­one who is search­ing for spec­u­la­tive fic­tion that draws upon East Asian cul­ture and mythol­ogy.

For Asian fans and as­pir­ing au­thors of the genre, this is a sem­i­nal work, a grat­i­fy­ing source of in­spi­ra­tion.

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