This is a book about war. There are people, too many people in fact, but only four or five of them feel like they stand through the cardboard test of character. The world is well-worn, colored and sunbaked as it is. It feels real, inhabitable, but when the background feels more alive than the characters I am supposed to care about, I have something of an issue.
There are a number of clever uses of Asian myth on display here. Liu is clearly in touch with whatever spark is held by the monstrosity known as myth, but there is a feeling here that he has bitten off more than any sane person ought to with this novel. The book feels like a prelude to something else. It’s good, I just wish it could be smaller, that it would have taken more time on the human side of things. But this is a book about power, about provinces squelching through the horrors of war, about men throwing lives away believing themselves gods until they are reminded that they so very, very mortal. There are human moments, but they are brief and they are fleeting and never brush up against the monolithic scope the book operates under.
That being said, there were parts of the book that hit notes so perfectly that any frustration was melted away. Ideas and inventions so strange and wonderful that my ‘people first’ approach to literature was abandoned and I let myself fall into the setting. I love the way the gods were used. I wish it had been more present, a proper mix of The Illiad and The Tale of the Heike/Game of Thrones/whatever gunless fantasy epic you happen to enjoy. They appear and perhaps it is through their shadow presence that they carry the power they do, but their understated conflict feels more living and dynamic than the dry military of 15,000 men using whale corpses to invade another province through the quiet of water.
By the end of the book I was realizing that despite the “Book 1” moniker it is, in fact, a largely self-contained story. Power is consolidated, the loser appropriately decapitated, and the world settles into comfortable enough status quo that Book 2 can descend from the mountains like a troll wielding fire and set it all aflame.
And, despite my criticisms, I’m rather looking forward to it.
“What is fate but coincidences in retrospect?” ― Ken Liu, The Grace of Kings