Interview with Ken Liu, Author of The Grace of Kings
We’re thrilled today to bring you an interview with author Ken Liu. His first novel The Grace of Kings from Saga Press hit shelves earlier this month, and already it’s set to be one of my top reads of the year. Be sure to check out my review of the book and see what I loved about it.
But first, please join me in welcoming Ken to The BiblioSanctum. I had a great time talking to him about his new book, and I hope you’ll enjoy this interview.
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Hello and welcome to the BiblioSanctum, Ken!
Ken Liu: Thanks for having me!
First of all, I want to congratulate you on the release of The Grace of Kings. Can you describe the book to your new and prospective readers?
Ken Liu: At its heart, The Grace of Kings is a re-imagining of the Chu-Han Contention in a secondary world fantasy archipelago setting. It’s the story of two unlikely friends, a bandit and a duke, who join together to overthrow tyranny only to find themselves on opposite sides of a deadly rivalry over how to construct a more just society.
It’s also a book that constructs a new aesthetic: silkpunk, which shares with steampunk a fascination with technology roads not taken, but is distinguished by a visual style inspired by Chinese block prints and an emphasis on materials primarily of historic significance to East Asia—silk, bamboo, ox sinew, paper, writing brushes—as well as other organic building materials available to seafaring peoples like coconut, whalebone, fish scales, coral, etc. The result is a technology vocabulary that feels more organic and more inspired by biomechanics. For instance, the bamboo-and-silk airships compress and expand their gasbags to change the amount of lift and are powered by feathered oars. When illuminated at night, they pulsate and move like jellyfish through an empyrean sea. Similarly, artificial limbs described in the book draw their inspiration from the “wooden ox” of Zhuge Liang in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, being constructed from intricate wooden mechanisms powered by flexible ox sinew.
The book is reimagining of the events surrounding the rise and fall of the short-lived Qin Dynasty, which lasted only fifteen years before it gave way to the Han Dynasty. What about this period fascinates you?
Ken Liu: The Chu-Han Contention is a foundational narrative for Chinese literature in the same way that epics like the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and Beowulf are foundational narratives for Western literature. Being steeped in both traditions, I wanted to try to find a way to transpose a foundational narrative from one tradition into the framework of another.
The novel deliberately melds narrative conventions taken from these two very different traditions. There are wuxia-style flashback character introductions as well as Anglo-Saxon-style kennings, poems based on Tang Dynasty models as well as songs imitating Middle English lyrics, rhetorical devices taken from Greek and Latin epics as well as formal descriptions reminiscent of Ming Dynasty novels. The opening scene, for example, features an extended series of parallel sentences with repetitive structure to form a catalog, something familiar in old oral epics but not often seen in modern works. I wanted to give the reader something different from what they may be used to, something that should, after an initial period of adjustment, prove the right fit for the story I wanted to tell.
What kind of research did you do for the book? Did you come across anything in your researching that surprised or interested you?
Ken Liu: I read the source text, Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, carefully, noting interesting things he did with characterization and shifting points of view. Most of the research, however, involved studying theories of technology and the evolution of technology. W. Brian Arthur’s work in this regard was particularly edifying. Though this is a work of fantasy, much of the joy in it comes from imagining a novel technology vocabulary and implementing it in service of the story.
The Grace of Kings has been described as a mix of many elements, including the combination of Eastern Asian and Western influences, history and fantasy, magic and steampunk, etc. What was the driving force behind the decision to combine philosophies and traditions from such a variety of sources?
Ken Liu: I’ve always had trouble writing strictly within genre boundaries, and I don’t see fantasy and science fiction, for example, as particularly distinct from each other. For my first novel, I wanted to take some risks and try to create something that was a novel mix that represented the sort of fiction I wanted to read.
The Grace of Kings is your first novel, but you’re already well known to the sci-fi and fantasy community for your award winning short stories. Did you experience any major differences between writing a novel versus in the short fiction format?
Ken Liu: Definitely. With short stories, it was possible to keep everything in my head, but with a novel I had to learn to take detailed notes and keep a wiki to track all the worldbuilding details and character traits and so on. It was a revelation how small decisions can have massive repercussions hundreds of pages later in the book.
When you were writing this book, did you have a solid idea of where the story was going to go when you started? Did the finished work end up how you’d envisioned it or were there any surprises along the way?
Ken Liu: Well, I knew the basic outline of the plot before I started, but along the way I discovered new characters and new technologies that didn’t exist in my head at all when I started. I love the sense of the story coming alive under your fingers to surprise you, and that happened with this novel multiple times.
So what’s next for Ken Liu? I know you probably can’t say much about it at this point, but is there anything you’d like to share about the sequel, or you know, just to tease what’s in store for us?
Ken Liu: The sequel takes place a few years after the end of TGOK, and I think readers will find that it shifts the focus quite a bit but continues the theme of developing a more just world. I can say for sure that there will be a lot of really cool silkpunk technology; indeed, to research some of them I almost injured myself…
Wow, sounds positively harrowing! I know I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Ken Liu: A pleasure to chat with you!
*** For more information about Ken Liu and his work, please visit his website at http://kenliu.name! ***