The Wall of Storms (Dandelion Dynasty)
by Ken Liu
Review by Sam Lubell
Saga Press Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781481424301
Date: 04 October 2016 List Price $29.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Wall of Storms, the sequel to Grace of Kings, follows the adventures of Kuni Garu, now Emperor Ragin, and his family. At 852 pages, this novel is a big doorstopper fantasy epic set in an invented archipelago with substantial Chinese influences (Ken Liu is known for his translations of Chinese science fiction). However, while Grace of Kings was full of interesting segments that struggled to hold together as a unified novel, Wall of Storms is much more coherent.
At first there are two main plotlines. In the first, Empress Jia schemes to establish her son, Prince Timu, oldest child of Emperor Ragin, as the rightful heir to the throne. Realizing that his claim would be stronger if he could become a military hero, she tricks Rin Coda, Imperial Farsight Secretary, into nurturing a rebellion against the Dandelion Dynasty. She then tries to undermine other potential rivals and nobles, even some of Kuni's original supporters. However, Kuni Garu secretly wants his daughter Princess Thera to succeed him.
Meanwhile, in the other major plotline that is an extended flashback, Scholar Luan Zya acquires a new protégé, Zomi Kidosu, who grew up in poverty and was partially crippled in a lightning strike. Part of the book is a travelogue of their adventures in a flying airship.
Then, halfway through the book, Kuni's kingdom is invaded by barbarians from the other side of the wall of storms, whose fire-breathing garinafin (essentially rideable dragons) are able to challenge Kuni's airships. With the country divided by Jia's plots and the country's great strategist imprisoned as a traitor Kuni's children face this new threat with varying levels of effectiveness.
Even more than the first book, Wall of Storms finds clever ways to invent technology for the pre-steam age--what some are calling silkpunk. There are some nice scenes of scientific investigation into how the garinafin breathe fire and some very elaborate descriptions of how different types of airships could work--unfortunately, at times the descriptions get in the way of the story although never as badly as in some other novels I've read.
Princess Thera is a great character, relying on her brain to solve problems and help her father. Zomi is also an interesting character, at times challenging the emperor and the entire scholarly community for maintaining rules and traditions that give advantages to children of the rich, while at other times acting unsure of herself and her position. Unfortunately, Jia, who in the first book was wonderfully unconventional, defying her parents to marry Kuni in the days of his wild youth, and encouraging him to make interesting choices, now seems reduced to a conventional role--a fairy tale's evil queen with plots and manipulations. Although there are a few scenes where she claims to be doing what is best for her country, her disavowals seem unconvincing. It is worth noting that most of the major characters in this book are female. Even among the enemy Lyucu, Princess Tanvanaki plays an important role.
Ken Liu, who will be a guest of honor at Capclave 2017, continues to impress. While Grace of Kings sometimes read like the product of a short story writer who mixed loosely connected stories together into one book, Wall of Storms shows how Liu has become more comfortable with the larger canvass of an epic novel. Although this novel is not set in China, much about it--from the names to the politics to the themes--seem taken from Chinese history and culture. Still, this is not copying, but translating and adapting what he understands about China into his own created world. This gives his novel an unusual flavor, at least for Western readers.
Although Wall of Storms takes place several years after Grace of Kings, as the second book in a series it does not stand alone. While the book does not end with a cliffhanger, the main situation is not resolved. I look forward to reading the third book in the Dandelion Dynasty and seeing how much the author continues to learn and grow. I recommend this book (on the understanding that readers should start with book one) to anyone who enjoys epic fantasy, Chinese history and culture, and creative ways to imagine modern technology in a pre-steam era. (Although I hope the term silkpunk is not meant to be taken seriously.)