Alec Austin (alecaustin) wrote,
Alec Austin

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.)
Tags: writing
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