The Wall of Storms, by Ken Liu

Review copy provided by the author.

When Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings came out in 2015, I found myself unable to review it objectively. Objectivity was impossible. The stories I'd heard as a child about the fall of the Qin dynasty and the rise of the Han had been incorporated into a Polynesian-themed wuxia fantasy, blending elements made familiar by Final Fantasy and steampunk--airships and tunneling machines!--with others that I'd rarely, if ever, seen in others' work. Here were shark-toothed swords and feather capes like those I'd seen when my mother worked at Bishop Museum; here were tales of sworn brothers, secret books, and cunning stratagems like those I'd heard on my great-aunt's knee.

I will not pretend to be an objective judge of The Wall of Storms. I suspect, however, that it improves on its predecessor.

Where The Grace of Kings took the Chu-Han contention and applied a fantasy gloss to history--or, if you prefer, the mythologized folk stories that make up most accounts of classical Chinese history--The Wall of Storms takes the period of consolidation following Liu Bang's unification of the former Warring States and puts it in a blender with two millennia of invasions, civil strife, cunning strategies, Beijing opera, and pingshu scripts. There are airships, fire attacks, rebel plots, and treachery; barbarians riding terrible beasts that dominate the battlefield; and hidden research labs developing secret weapons. All the elements, in short, needed to build on the foundation Liu established in his previous book.

The first half of The Wall of Storms follows history more closely than the second. Forces in the imperial palace move to undermine and compromise the Emperor Kuni Garu's companions and former generals, so the threat to centralized rule which they pose can be removed. As tragedy seems inevitable, however, an incursion into Dara by a foreign power shifts the course of events, refocusing the plot on military matters and the fate of several voyages of exploration which predated the invasion.

As allegiances shift and major characters meet their ends, it becomes apparent that the principal actors (and survivors) of The Wall of Storms are largely women. Empress Jia's agenda drives the first half of the book, while Gin Mazoti remains Dara's greatest general and tactician. Princess Thera proves the most effective of the Emperor's heirs, particularly when aided by Zomi Kidosu, the protégé of the Emperor's onetime strategist. And Princess Vadyu Roatan, the daughter and heir of the invading force's leader, proves her ruthlessness on both the battlefield and in her personal life. If The Grace of Kings had an outstanding flaw, it was the paucity of important female characters. This is not an issue in The Wall of Storms.

The Wall of Storms is also an exemplar of what I like to call "hard fantasy"--that is, fantasy which plays within the bounds of its own rules; (many of) the known laws of physics, chemistry, and biology; and our best understanding of history. Key plot points hinge on the physics of light, the construction of electrical cells, and the properties of methane. Our world is full of cool and interesting things; it would be folly for a fantasy author to not take advantage of that. And Ken Liu is no fool.

The Wall of Storms is not a short book. (My ARC is slight more than 850 pages long.) Nonetheless, I devoured it in three days. While The Grace of Kings is still the best place to start with this series, I heartily recommend The Wall of Storms to all serious readers of epic fantasy.

All Our Differences and All Our Stories

Hey, all.

So in my last post, I mentioned that there's a Kickstarter up for the Hidden Youth anthology, which I'll have a story in if it gets funded.

I know not everyone has money spare to support the anthology directly, so if you could help spread the word about the Kickstarter, and maybe link to this essay if you think it's worth sharing, I would appreciate that.

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Fiction update

Hey, all. It's been a while since I last posted here, and it turns out I have some news.

1) I have a story--"Blood Reckonings"--up in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #201.

2) Hidden Youth, the follow-up to the anthology Long Hidden, is running a Kickstarter. If it's funded, my story about a half-Hakka female Taoist exorcist banishing ghosts at the end of the Taiping uprising will appear in its pages. Just saying.

3) On top of all that, "The Resurrectionists" (the oldest of my stories still in circulation) was accepted by Fireside Magazine. So that's cool.

I'm going to be at Fourth Street for the next few days here, but I did want to mention cool things happening in one of the places where people who care would see it. So there we are.

Some Thoughts on Reviews, Comprehensiveness, and 'best' short stories

So let's talk a little bit about short fiction reviews, the rhetoric of 'best', and stuff like that.

Neil Clarke had an editorial recently in which he argued that short fiction reviews don't have much value - his proxy for 'value' being whether they drive readership, in terms of measurable impact on incoming web traffic. With some exceptions - he stipulates that reviews on high-traffic sites, Amazon, and reviews that focused on a single story instead of multiples can be significant - individual recommendations ("read this!") on twitter or other social media appear to motivate reading more than your average review.

This reminded me of something I've been thinking about lately, which is that I think it is unreasonable for any individual to attempt to read and review all or even most of the short fiction being published in the field right now.

I think this for several reasons, the first of which is holy shit have you seen how many stories are out there? Even if you ignore anthologies - which you'd have to, there are only so many hours in the day - there are literally dozens of professional-quality markets publishing short science fiction and fantasy at present. I have my favorites; if you read short fiction at all, you probably have yours; and there isn't necessarily any overlap between them.

This brings me to my second reason, which is that "the field" of SFF is probably better understood as several overlapping fields, which each share (some of) their readers. If a reader's taste is not notably catholic, and they try to read "everything", even for fairly curated values of everything, they are going to be reading a lot of stories that they don't like, not because the story fails to do what it sets out to do, but because they are not the audience for that story, or the story next to it, or basically anything published in those three magazines over there ever.

(As a brief illustration of these divisions within a single magazine, consider that Brad Torgersen, davidlevine, and mrissa - as well as your humble correspondent - are all multiply published in Analog. There are significant generational, rhetorical, and political fault lines you can draw there, which I feel produce highly diverse aesthetic results. Remember, this is within one magazine, and the subgenre of hard SF. I would argue that the field as a whole is even more fractured.)

Returning to our reader of "everything", not only is reading lots of things they don't like probably going to make them cranky and resentful, but it's not particularly fair to the venues or authors whose work will end up being held to standards they were never trying to meet in the first place. Yes, this Chinese-inflected military SF story *is* a remarkably bad science-fantasy romp. What a useful and actionable observation, hypothetical reviewer!

Furthermore, anyone who sets themselves such an overwhelming task is likely to become frustrated, burn out, and/or develop a jaded palette (or, slightly more generously, neophilia) along the way-- and when they do, one can expect it to spill over into their evaluations. How it does will vary: perhaps a rant about how X group with Y politics is doing Z to ruin [genre]; perhaps highly capricious recommendations and recommendation criteria; perhaps something else entirely. Point being, based on both thought experiments and recent evidence, reviewing "everything" doesn't seem like a particularly healthy behavior for people to adopt.

But how will we know which stories are the absolute best of the year, an interlocutor might cry? Well, if your standard is which of the thousands of published stories you would enjoy or admire or appreciate the most if you read them, you probably won't, and that's fine. "Best", when applied to fiction (or anything else without rigorous, unambiguous evaluation criteria) is an inherently contingent claim. The frequency with which it pops up in hashtags, award names, and anthology titles just speaks to our society's desire for rankings, lists, and certainty. The claim of bestness has rhetorical force and marketing value, but when we let the tyranny of total orderings prevent us from recommending good things to our friends, or nominating works we enjoyed for awards because they might not reach some imagined bar of quality... that too is unhealthy, I think. There's a whole literature on maximizers versus satisficers that's relevant here.

The field has grown a lot since it was - I'm told - feasible for a serious reader to be familiar with all the stories published in a year. This is a gift. Read however many stories you want, wherever you want. Don't read stories you don't want to, and don't finish stories you don't want to. Recommend and share things you like, and as mrissa says here, don't sweat whether something will be your absolute favorite or just in your top 27 at some later date. I mean, what a failure state. 27 favorites! Oh, the humanity!

I feel like I'm about to start repeating myself, so why don't we just leave it at that.

New story in BCS

So my story "Fire Rises" is in this week's Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

There's a lot of stuff going on in there, like satellite magic (with actual artificial satellites), entire tomb complexes conjured out of myth, and Kung Fu/wuxia battles fought on top of a moon that's rising into the sky. There are also !Phoenician communists with artificially created great destinies, !Manchu imperialists, !Russian death cultists, and more. It has some of my favorite lines I've written in a while in it.

Anyway. New story. I hope that you'll read and enjoy it.

Putting the Fun back in Fungus

So in addition to today being release day for Last First Snow, mrissa has a new story up on Strange Horizons: "It Brought Us All Together".

As I've said elsewhere, I'm particular fond of this one, because I feel that it gets many things about the performance of grief and the ways compassion is and isn't extended in the wake of tragedy exactly right. Plus, y'know, administrative freakouts in school contexts. It pretty much nails that part too.

Anyway. Highly recommended. Go check it out.

ETA: Apparently today is the day for two mrissa stories! Her Gnome Genomics story just came out. It has a very long title, and is very funny. So go read that too.

Premise vs. Structure vs. Text

So this year I was on the pre-convention Seminar before Fourth Street. Despite covering professionalism, voice, and critique in 3 separate discussions, we barely got through half of the things we had notes for, which is about par for the course. So here are some notes on one of the topics we didn't get to.

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Do not approve. Still not resigned.

So I gather from twitter (of all the ways to find out) that irishninja died today. I only met him once in person, in San Francisco when he was in town for the weekend, but he was someone I could talk anime and symphonic metal with, and who seemed genuinely happy editing the website for Magic: the Gathering. I would say he had a good heart-- and he did, in the metaphorical sense-- but it was probably the organ which gave out on him.

I wish that I had the words and the focus to write something like this for him, but it was a long day and a long weekend and a long week before that. So instead I find myself bereft, and inarticulate, and full of rage, and wanting to kick something. And linking to poems, because that's all I have it in me to do at the moment.

(Title from "Dirge Without Music" by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Like I said. Linking to poems. It's what I've got.)

ETA: I guess I have this, also.

A Cage of Eloquence

What words are there, when hearts betray
our mortal flesh, make still
our lips, empty our lungs, yield ground--
the field-- to gravity, and entropy, and time?

All words are dross; a cage
of eloquence, to gag
our lips, choke off our wails
of defiance and
our love.

The universe, implacable and deaf
to our small cries, grinds on, muttering
"All will be dust", its voice
a susurration on
the solar wind.

No matter. While we yet live
we howl, and rage, and weep.
Let no friend descend into the dark
unmourned, unsung,

Minicon panels

So I'll be at Minicon 50 this year, and should you want to see me on panels (or at my reading with mrissa) here are the times and places and topics involved.

Friday, April 5, 1:00 PM - Anime and Manga for Speculative Fiction Fans: From the days of Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy and its intelligent robots, manga and anime with science fiction and fantasy themes have been popular. Let's discuss some of the most interesting ones for speculative fiction fans, both current and vintage.

John Stanfield, Alec Austin, Ozgur K. Sahin, Scott K. Jamison

Saturday, April 6, 3:30 PM - Marissa Lingen & Alec Austin Reading: Mris and I will read things. Aloud, even.

Sunday, April 7, 2:30 PM - Middle Grade Optimism vs YA Dystopia: Magical wonder abounds in middle grade lit but seems to disappear once stories make the jump to the next age bracket. Does pessimism go hand in hand with the advent of hormones? Is middle grade more than it appears?(from both reader and writer perspective)

Donna Munro, Adam Stemple, Alec Austin, Brandon Sanderson, Jane Yolen, Marissa Lingen

...I know it's not nice to argue with panel descriptions before the actual panel, but srsly, lolwut? at the unexamined claims in the YA/MG panel description. We should be able to have an interesting conversation, at any rate.

Not a review: Foundational Narratives and the Grace of Kings

So. Let's talk about foundational narratives.

There are stories that twine through a culture's literature, through its idioms, its metaphors, its self-image. It usually doesn't matter if they're true or not, because they're so deeply embedded. The tropes, structure, and incidents of these stories become the building blocks of future stories: not just direct retellings, but stories set centuries or millennia later, in dramatically different contexts.

The English-speaking West has lots of these foundational stories. You know what I'm talking about: Achilles. Odysseus. Julius Caesar. Jesus. The Fall of Rome. Arthur. The list goes on and on.

These stories and their derivatives have been told again and again through the years, recycled into mimetic literature (I see your protagonist's initials are J.C.-- how clever...) as well as genre. Quest fantasies have their roots in Arthurian legend, when they aren't explicitly modeled on it; the Hobbit drew on Beowulf in much the same way Game of Thrones draws on the Wars of the Roses.

Don't get me wrong. I love many of these stories. But they aren't mine in the same way as The Romance of Three Kingdoms, or the rise and fall of the Qin Empire, or the Chu/Han contention. (One exception is the story of Alexander the Great, because I was told the famous episodes-- Bucephalus, the Gordian Knot, his defeat of Darius-- very early, and in the same way I was told about Cao Cao.) The history of Sengoku Japan is in many ways more my story than that of Arthur, because the way it's told means it uses a lot of the same building blocks as the stories my great-aunt told me about Cao Cao and Guan Yu and Zhuge Liang. I mean, look at Koei's Musou (Warriors) games. Cao Cao and Nobunaga's character models look very similar, because they're drawing on the same narrative archetype.

A brief digression: Most Chinese immigrant narratives aren't my story, or the story of my family, either. I know there are lots of people for whom the work of Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and/or Gene Luen Yang is powerful and resonant. But I (mostly) grew up in Hawaii, in a context where I was surrounded by Asian and hapa people. The fact that my high school girlfriend was Hakka and I was half Han meant more than the fact that we were both 'Chinese'.

This matters because, until now, I'd never really felt the shock of recognition-- of feeling like something that was one of my stories-- in English-language media which wasn't translated.

The closest I'd come to having that experience before was in reading Ken Liu's "The Man Who Ended History". I can't be objective about that story, because to me, the science fictional elements of it are the least compelling part of it. The parts about the Second Sino-Japanese war and the medical experimentation and war crimes of Unit 731, on the other hand, hit close to the bone. My family was nowhere near Manchuria during the war, but my grandfather built airstrips for the Flying Tigers, while my grandmother barely escaped cities before the Japanese captured them on several occasions. There's a lot to be said about Western narratives of World War II versus how things went in Asia, but this isn't the place for it. The point is, that story really worked for me, and it was clear that Ken Liu and I shared cultural reference points.

Now that I've read his debut novel, The Grace of Kings, it's clear that we share many foundational stories as well.

Before I go any further, let's be clear about something: When you have different foundational stories, you get different derived narratives. The archetypes you draw on aren't the same. The tropes and set pieces you draw on aren't either. The story structures and forms which seem natural to you can vary drastically. And it's very easy for people to tell you you're doing it wrong, or that a choice you've made is somehow bad or that a character is unsympathetic, when you're just drawing on a different tradition than what they're used to.

These are all challenges that Ken Liu had to take on in writing The Grace of Kings, which retells, in the form of Polynesian-tinged fantasy, the fall of the Qin Dynasty and the Chu-Han contention. The source material here is literally epic, both in scope and in terms of the stories and mythic resonance that have accreted around its cast over the years. There are bandits turned generals; divinely inspired strategists; titanic construction projects; crushing taxes; decadent courts; and people threatening to make soup out of their rivals' relatives. To this, Liu adds an archipelago, helium-filled airships, sentient narwhal-whales, clubs studded with shark teeth, a brilliant female general, fighting kites, and the occasional steam engine.

As of this writing, I am utterly incapable of either being objective about The Grace of Kings or judging how someone who was not raised on stories about Qin Shi Huang Di (aka Emperor Mapidéré), Zhang Liang (Luan Zya), and Liu Bang (Kuni Garu)-- to say nothing of King Kamehameha and his conquest of Hawaii-- would respond to the book.

Personally, I loved it.

Moreover, I'm impressed with how Ken Liu dealt with the many, many challenges which crop up when trying to adapt classical Chinese narratives for a western fantasy audience. (Trust me, it ain't easy.) Pick a naming scheme that's too familiar, and people will mentally cast everyone in your book as white; pick one too true to the source material, and readers won't be able to tell your characters apart; or engage in literal translation and exoticize your characters by calling them things like "Little Blossom". The naming schemes which are used The Grace of Kings dodge many of these pitfalls (though I will confess the Japanese-inflected names sometimes threw me a little).

Similarly, there are challenges which arise when trying to convey the degree to which historical and classical allusions were used as both conversational gambits and to convey coded messages among bureaucrats and the literati. The frequency with which the sage Kon Fiji (an approximation of Confucius) is cited in the text, and the range of ways in which his works are interpreted go a long way towards achieving the right effect. So does the strategic use of adapted songs and poems, and the deliberate unpacking of the symbolism around the names of Kuni Garu's children. (The list of challenges goes on and on-- I've barely scratched the surface here.)

The Grace of Kings is, to my mind, a tremendously important book. I don't just want it to be successful; I want it to open the door for more books which are built on non-default foundational narratives. I mean, I would gladly write a novel that takes what The Grace of Kings does for the Chu/Han contention and transposes it to the Three Kingdoms period. But I also know what it feels like to never have your stories told, and to be told you should engage with stories that are built on another culture's assumptions, or aimed at an audience which is only superficially similar to you.

More than that, I want multiple versions of each story to be viable. It's not like we can only have one King Arthur novel, after all. The Grace of Kings shouldn't be the only version of the Liu Bang/Xiang Yu conflict on the shelves, any more than On a Red Station Drifting should be the only rendition of Dream of a Red Chamber.

Foundational narratives are just that, after all: platforms to build off of.

Let's get building.


(Author's note: I sat on this for a week and a half before posting it. There are so many caveats I want to give: yes, obviously I work in and use the Western narrative tradition; no, I know my experience-- that anyone's experience-- of being ethnic Chinese and/or hapa in America is far from universal. But it seems more important to get the words out there than to adhere to the conventions of this sort of essay, or to fret about people challenging my authenticity, or whatever. So I'm going to pretend that this post isn't about me, just long enough to hit 'post', and then go to work. Right then. Pretending real hard.)