Acclaimed short fiction writer and translator Liu treads novel territory with The Grace of Kings, in which two very different men compete for imperial power.
Why did you decide to take on a multibook series?
My wife, Lisa, and I both grew up on wuxia—Chinese historical romances. They’re kind of analogous to Western epics. They’re based on history, just like the Iliad and the Odyssey are based on history, but they’re romanticized, and a lot of fantasy elements have been added. My wife said, “Why don’t you try reimagining these stories into something that Western readers will find accessible?” There’s a long tradition, in the U.S. and China, of reimagining archetypal works to give them new life. Like how James Joyce took the Odyssey and turned it into Ulysses. So I started thinking about it, and it grew on me.
How difficult was it to adapt wuxia stories to modern epic fantasy?
I chose to reimagine a set of legends surrounding the rise of the Han Dynasty. It’s not what I call a “magical China” story. Whenever you talk about Chinese dragons, emperors, palaces, concubines —they conjure up a whole colonial argle-bargle that has nothing to do with historical reality. I wanted to make my stories, which are inspired by Asian stories, into something fresh, decontextualized—to give them new life as a new kind of fantasy that isn’t so cloying and exotic and strange. I’m also a technologist at heart. Part of my research for the novel was looking at old patents to get ideas for what Iron Age technology could do. A lot of the technology in the book has historical analogues, or is extrapolated from historical models.
Why is history a central theme?
In some ways the novel is an homage to old Western epics. For example, Mata Zyndu is like Zeus, with his enormous pride, while Kuni is more wily and less stern and serious, like Odysseus. I wanted the reader to see how the events that the hero undergoes can become mythologized—how history becomes story and becomes different after you go through it. The idea that our actions will be judged in the future is very much at the forefront of Kuni’s and Mata’s minds. I want readers to be conscious of that weight and complexity, as well as the joy of being part of the adventure.
The book’s emphasis on family is also pretty unusual in epic fantasy, isn’t it?
Family being an echo of larger political purposes is very much a part of old epics, both Western and Asian. Modern epic fantasy is very big on romance, but we’re not just lovers; we’re parents, children, teachers, students, neighbors, and all these other relationships that define us and give us status and meaning. I wanted to evoke some of that.
What’s next for the Dandelion Dynasty series?
Each book will have a different focus. The first centers on brotherhood and the male perspective. The treatment of women in this setting is something I address in the next book. Kuni’s daughter is a central character. I thought long and hard about historical misogyny. I wanted to preserve the complexity of the history, but also show how things could change.