Edition 30: Book Review: Wall of Storms by Ken Liu
Reviewed by Damien Smith
If you’ve managed to snag yourself a copy of Wall of Storms, the second book in the Dandelion Dynasty trilogy, I’m am reasonably certain you will have already experienced the wonder that is Grace of Kings. If not, what on Earth are you doing starting the second book of a trilogy? Luckily, I’ve previously reviewed Grace of Kings right here at SQ Mag. Nip over and have a quick read of that review, then settle down for however long it takes you to plough through an 800+ page Big Fat Fantasy. I’ll wait.
If you’ve decided to come back, I’ll assume you, like me and every single other person who picked it up, enjoyed Grace of Kings greatly. I am pleased to tell you that Wall of Storms is just as good, if not better.
When I first finished Grace of Kings, I remember thinking, since Kuni Garu was on the throne, the whole continent was at peace and the hegemon was slain, where to from here? This is answered brilliantly by the first mention of the titular storms: “A young dynasty must pass through a wall of storms before the first succession”. The entire first half of the book is crammed to the gills with court intrigue, the stabilising of an empire, and the manoeuvring and betrayal of nobles and royals attempting to position themselves to capitalise on and steer the direction of the new, young dynasty of Kuni Garu.
There are even attempts to stoke rebellion to give the new regime a focus and a ‘bad guy’, as too much peace appears to hurt an empire as much as too much war. While the hegemon is dead and gone, his simple black and white view of the world is still attractive to many, and his ongoing popularity draws some uncomfortable parallels with some current world politics.
Like the first book, there is a huge dramatis personæ to keep track of, most of whom rarely fit with any tired fantasy tropes. While many old favourites return, there are some new pivotal additions such as the scholar Zomi Kidosu who, like Gin Mazoti, refuses to accept a woman’s traditional place by excelling in her chosen field rather more than her male counterparts. Kuni Garu’s children also play pivotal roles as the novel progresses, possibly none more so than his daughter Thera. Indeed, the many female characters have driving roles throughout the novel.
While the court intrigue, imperial examinations and internal instability were fascinating and greatly satisfying to read (although I will admit I had some trouble following the construction of written logograms as they became progressively more complex), at approximately the halfway point, the book took a complete change of direction with the arrival of a huge fleet of apparent immortals along with their sort-of-dragon mounts (sort of…finding out more about them is a key part later in proceedings).
An empire already reeling from internal strife must then face off with a cunning and seemingly unbeatable invasion force intent on subjugating the entire continent. We then learn about the second, literal wall of storms: a huge and permanent line of hurricanes and cyclones surrounding the known world out at sea, effectively isolating the entire empire from the rest of the world.
From here is it far from a straightforward battle of armies. As with the first book, Liu beautifully details the consequences and ugly sides of war, from slave populations to turncoats, to culture clashing and merging and to the children of the invaders and natives, nothing is simple and everything has another side to consider.
Again, there are some questionable science and engineering feats in here that got an eyebrow raise from me such as the ability of an iron-age (ish) culture to compress and store air, however in Liu’s defence:
- It’s a ‘silk punk’ novel and as we all know, the ‘punk’ part stands for ‘Hang the disbelief and just enjoy it’ and;
- There are some author’s notes at the end of the novel describing in great detail how some of the more dubious-sounding creations actually existed and worked that sent me scrambling to Google to learn some things and made me apologetically lower my eyebrow again.
Although the first book wrapped things up nicely with a big bow, this book, in the great tradition of decent second books everywhere, blew everything wide open again in anticipation of the third book. My biggest complaint with this book is now I have to wait for the next one. If you enjoyed the first, you will love this. Finally, if you weren’t lucky enough to procure a hard copy of the novel, there are maps available here: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18952381-the-wall-of-storms
Wall of Storms (Ken Liu)
Saga Press, 2016
Fantasy Fiction (Silk Punk)
Being a writer requires dedication, commitment, devotion, diligence, a skin like an armadillo and a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears. By this definition, Damien is most definitely not a writer, although he does occasionally put pen to paper. More accurately, Damien is a lover of the written word in nearly all its forms (you can keep vampire romances) and always feels a little down if he can see over his To Read pile.