Three things we live for in Asia: melodrama, engineering, and cultural assimilation. All are impressively represented in the first two books of Ken Liu’s proposed trilogy, The Dandelion Dynasty. Readers, short of breath and full of foreboding, will have closed the second book, The Wall of Storms, with more questions than answers, and a whole new set of fears for the fantasy world of Dara.
Both hopes and anxieties for this spectacular, sophisticated world are entirely warranted. Liu’s operatic first novel, The Grace of Kings, introduced us to the lay of the land with clever, if sometimes over-determined sweeps of the terrain. When a scholar-assassin, borne on wings he engineered himself, crash-lands upon an imperial train to murder the cruel emperor Mapidéré, he kicks off several journeys that, crisscrossing, will bring about the collapse of the reign.
On the way we learn of the differences between the realms united by the military dictatorship of Mapidéré, and the resentment and tragedy seething under each; a dead princess here, a lost generation there. The vengeful surviving heir of a rival turns out to be key to Mapidéré’s downfall, but not, ultimately, his replacement. Instead, street smarts and some strategic banditry help elevate a commoner to the dubious honour of presiding over these warring states (which are not, to be sure, the Warring States; Liu has put in too much imaginative effort for that).
In The Wall of Storms, after two generations of cruel warfare and heartbreak, matters have turned almost too baroque for high fantasy, and several centuries’ worth of Chinese tragedy appear to have befallen one very exciting generation. Here, without ado, is the sitrep.
The first thing that binds the lands and nations of Dara together is geography. We may broadly understand this continent to be delimited by the Wall of Storms, a stationary tidal wave far out in the great ocean, uncrossed by any known human. Second: within that natural girdle, the jurisdiction of humanity is superseded, indifferently, by its metaphysical phenomena. Dara is watched over by a family of gods talented at playing favourites and little else. (They’re irritating, like most gods, even if Liu sketches them with variety and flair.)
But the third and most dangerous thing that unites these lands, seemingly, is the imperial will to power. The Grace of Kings was the story of how Mapidéré’s territorial hunger gives way to the commoner Kuni’s vision of mutually beneficial coexistence. This lovable scoundrel fought his way to the top of the political hierarchy—a sclerotic Jenga tower of materialists and short-sighted intellectuals—in hopes of reconstituting it, at least partially, for the good of the common people.
So far, so good. In imperial entertainment, order is redemption, and it is the work of irreverent tricksters to reconcile us to this fact. At the end of The Grace of Kings, the reader had every reason to believe that Kuni and his complement of shrewd, knowing friends would make easier work of this task than their historical counterparts in our world have managed.
When The Wall of Storms opens, we are in a Tang Dynasty fantasia. Young philosophers are sweating over bureaucratic exams; the poor debate the true meaning of meritocracy in open court; and little girls dream of rebellion against a strict, but not absolutely stifling patriarchy. Like Jia Matiza, empress, arch-realist, and chief schemer of the court of the Dandelion, we are prepared to be immersed in a scheming, twisting drama of accession, as we wait to see how Dara falls in line with its new government; and of succession, as we lay our bets on which of Kuni’s heirs will reveal himself apparent.
Alas. The emperor Ragin, as Kuni styles himself, may have considered Dara’s continued survival as a long act of deal-making, both political and moral. It turns out that enemies with dragons don’t need political solutions. Across the oceans come pillaging herdsmen and dragons from an unimagined, unimaginable barbarian continent. The imperial family is thrown into disarray and Ragin’s right-hand men and women are put in impossible, life-threatening positions. Worst of all, Kuni’s mentor and Dara’s most brilliant and most original mind is nowhere at hand—because, horror of horrors, he is the only living man in memory to have figured out how to cross the Wall of Storms, and has been trapped into putting that knowledge to use by the enemies of his nation.
The invading Lyucu are an army of golden-haired looters from a harsh country. It lies so far out of the Dara worldview that not even the gods can conceive of who these interlopers really are, much less the humans who have never heard of them. At the first exhale of this lawless army’s fire-breathing “garinafin,” the silk-wearing, rice-eating, socially adept culture of their victims crumbles. Welcome to the nuclear age.
To put it mildly, Kuni’s world is decimated. The Lyucu chief institutes a cruel system of group punishment to destroy trust among his captives. His male soldiers commit mass rape to impregnate women and change the demographic of the colonised land. Kuni and Jia’s eldest son, the crown prince Timu, becomes the victim of a form of sexual violence, coerced into a sham marriage with a commander-princess of the Lyucu.
And so, the world transformed between the beginning and end of The Grace of Kings undergoes yet another transformation. Everywhere in Liu’s universe, the wise overreach; the clever come to grief, no matter how modest their schemes; and only the strong, who die early, are lucky, secure in their own sense of right and wrong. The Wall of Storms ends not with despair, but with disquiet: whatever is coming next, we realise, is only likely to further complicate the series’ concern with society and the compromised rules by which it governs human freedom—another area, of course, of superlative Asian expertise.
Liu is an engineer of “silkpunk,” an in-world aesthetic that draws on Chinese and Southeast Asian ideas and materials to imagine fantastic innovations, which help transform the way his characters experience the world. Soldiers fly in battle with the help of kites; seers influence minds with the help of magical smoke; steam powers simple submarines—and yes, gunpowder makes anti-airship guns, because that’s how you roll in fantasy East Asia. Liu himself described the story as something like a “loose retelling” of the stories of early Han dynasty China, and the narrative arc of The Wall of Storms may owe something to that period of Chinese expansion and the empire’s humbling at the hands of the Xiongnu people of the eastern steppes. Liu cannily invites us to be both seduced and resist the seductions of the Hua-Yi distinction, most commonly expressed as the old Chinese differentiation between culture (China) and barbarism (everyone else).
The series opens with the Qin Chinese expression of its will to power, “All under heaven.” All through the books, we are acquainted with a joyous parade of petty bureaucrats, frustrated geniuses, dauntless princesses, cross-dressing soldiers, and tragically brave lone wolves that anyone who has seen a wuxia movie will enjoy recognising. Their pages are populated with engineers and technologists, all gleefully operating within the constraints of classical East Asian philosophy and science (with a little help from magic animals such as horned whales—Liu is world-beatingly good at fantasy biology, as anyone who studies his in-universe explanation for how “garinafins” breathe fire and giant falcons travel vast distances will see).
Yet the series is very far from being a cosmetic recreation of the aesthetic and ethos of Chinese antiquity. Liu is no Tolkien, looking for classical solutions to the dilemmas of power. Indeed, his narrative is remarkably distrustful of every political actor in this book; even its nimble pragmatists, whom he clearly loves, must confront the dreary drama of making a tough, unlikeable decision that can only lead to more tough, unlikeable decisions.
Some readers have called the Dandelion Dynasty series an “Asian Game of Thrones,” usually when recommending it to other readers. Liu and George R. R. Martin do, primarily, share an interest in suffering, pretty much the ultimate preexisting condition of Westeros and of Dara. It is conceivable, if not overwhelmingly likely, that both could close their stories with the wide-scale destruction of their worlds, simply because both have an instinct for darling-killing, and the ability to pull it off on a large scale. Too, both are interested in a form of old-timey world-building that borrows elements from history, and weaves them together with our own ideas about political and cultural reinvigoration.
If Liu is more disappointing than Martin in one respect, it is because he sets us up to expect more sophistication out of his work. He makes the big leaps of plot and character demanded by his chosen mode of high fantasy like an athlete in form. In The Wall of Storms, he shows especial adroitness in service of a set of big problems for which the first book prepared the ground for only in the most tenuous of ways. Yet his intent sometimes overwhelms his crisp, declarative style. Where Martin cuts fat from his world-building with framing/set-up/punchline chapter structuring, Liu and his characters become stately, even pedagogic, in conveying meaning and experience to us. It seems like a neatly Confucian stylistic choice, but it is a flaw, and it belongs, I think, not to Liu’s geographical imaginary but to his reality.
In turbulent times, all fantasy appears allegorical. Around the world—perhaps most noisily in the industrial nations of the West, as even Asians will concede—the elite consensus on least-worst paths to progress has come under heavy fire. Brute force has forced many to defend their most cherished assumptions about how to live and thrive in our imperfect world. Who are we without the political economies that shaped us, and gave us rights, and restrained our liberties in service of a larger goal? Relaxingly for us, the people of Dara may have even less of a clue than we do.
Liu uses The Wall of Storms to lay bare the fact that an existential problem is not necessarily resolved by bringing in new management. Yet the challenges and pleasures of these situations are restrained somewhat by how susceptible they are to the staginess of those of us who spend a little too much time explaining things to others on our subreddits of choice. It is in dialogue (and often, we must admit, monologue) that Liu reveals the Dandelion Dynasty to be a fantasy that owes much to its modern, North American context. The hand is the hand of Esau, but the voice is the voice of Jacob from Massachusetts.
If a certain kind of reader takes pleasure in imagining the fate of Dara as the transition of the American polity from the Obama years to the destructive age of Trump—well, firstly, you’ve certainly earned a bit of fun. Second, it’s not to Liu’s credit that his main characters often speak and breathe as though they belonged in Madam Secretary, with fewer polyester ties and more personalised vehicular kites. The court of the Dandelions is not a thousand miles removed from a liberal American administration, which tends to show up well in snappy TV shows and relative terms. (As an aside, Liu works hard to ameliorate the bleakness of politics before Kuni’s ascendancy—a lovely flashback to the promise and the failures of the cruel Emperor Mapidéré’s intentions is particularly melancholy and effective.)
Take, for example, Liu’s anthropological solution to the conflict of interest between open borders and stable societies in a telling sideplot. The island of Tan Adü, uncolonised and almost entirely cut off from cultural exchange with Dara, is left to its devices by Kuni’s government, because the emperor savvily deduces that the only just way to treat with a closed society, at peace with itself, is to leave it to determine its own pace of change. Obviously someone in this universe had to invent the undergraduate anthropology seminar, but did it have to be the emperor, one wonders?
Characters dutifully externalise their thought processes for the benefit of others and are careful to think, as well as speak, discursively. “I guess he got cold feet,” one tells another for instance. “Rebellion seemed good in theory, but when it came time to take the plunge, the mayor just couldn’t do it.” A woman ruler, justifying her lack of scruples in playing politics, recounts all the great men of the series and their advantages over her before explaining why her gender made it impossible to follow their paths—utterly unnecessary, as this is something Liu has quite deftly woven into the story of this novel from its earliest pages. Then there are the odd moments in which characters really do speak as though they come from California. “Well, the view was so incredible that I kind of didn’t want to return.”
To be sure, Liu’s know-it-alls do believe, as one character astutely points out, “that the world itself is a kind of speech to be decoded.” You have to “both experience reality and to construct it,” as an adviser tells a princess. Such rulers can, and do, invent solutions for every imaginable problem.
And not even the worst of these offenses eclipse Liu’s artful, delicate narrative mechanics, which serve both his big story and his big ideas admirably. He is far too serious to restrict the competition of ideas in his universe to the clash of free will and fatalism, or chaos and order. E. M. Forster attempted to persuade us that civilisation was temporary respite from the endless ravages of “force,” the will of the mighty that cared nothing for the stratagems that allow us to make life bearable for each other. It was our duty to hold civilisation together for as long as we could before succumbing to the inevitable, Forster wrote; it was our good fortune that the mighty were so stupid.
The Wall of Storms’s biggest triumph is its resistance of the simpler appeals of this view. Its villains are dashing, subtle serpents, meant to sow doubt in the heart of all those who love their big, maximum-governance society and the idea of civilisation as a history of adaptive behaviours. The cruel Lyucu, natives of a cruel land, salt the earth with their contempt for tact, hypocrisy, and the pursuit of high forms of pleasures—which are, of course, the hallmarks of all diverse societies built on compromise. In attempting to preserve the good in their society at the cost of the better, they think, Dara deserves to come to grief. So goes the enduring mutual hatred of the revolutionary and the reactionary for the liberal.
But corrupt, self-regarding, complex Dara is a place where women can succeed through sheer brilliance, same-gender couples may live free of oppression, and persons of various races and classes may mingle free of ritualised humiliation. The Lyucu are jealous of what they have, and well may they be. In the first book, Dara was gathering time; in the second, the Lyucu are spending it. The clock is running out, faster and faster, as the children of Kuni’s generation grow, and the sea is due a new crossing. Liu’s universe is as full as it has ever been of wonder and of purpose; we shall wait to learn if it will also have compassion.