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.