What I Read in the Month of August:
Save the Cat was a great, short read. I learned so much from the screenwriter. This is an excellent book for writers of any stage. The author presents his knowledge in a funny, easy-to-understand manner. This book is written as a “how to” write a novel of sorts. He takes you through each step from creating a title to finishing a marketable first draft.
One of the most significant points I took away from this novel is his 15 point Beat Sheet. I’m naturally a pancer,* but since studying novel writing professionally, I’ve had to learn to outline. I used to plot with John Truby’s 22 Steps from The Anatomy of Story, but that just didn’t work for me. Snyder’s 15 steps are much clearer and fit better with my style of drafting. Snyder’s plotting method may not work for you, but even if it doesn’t, he has a lot of great other tips for building a strong story. I would definitely encourage writers of all levels to read this book.
I read The Grace of Kings for my “Readings in Genre” class. Though I love the fantasy genre and respect this novel for winning an award in the genre, I have to say that I did not find it entertaining. I am a firm believer that novels should be first and foremost fun for the reader. I felt that Liu built a robust and intricate fantasy world, but there were a few reasons why this novel did not come together as it should have in my opinion. I will discuss those reasons below. *Note: I will present a few specific instances in this novel to back up my reasoning. If you do not want to be spoiled in any way, please click off and come back once you have read the book.
The Grace of Kings Review:
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu expands the lives of many characters across a vast fantasy world. Often, the novel illustrates a conflict in a character’s life, the dispute is relatively resolved, and then the story skips years ahead to another character. Since the book is told in third person omniscience, Liu introduces many characters in moderate detail. Because of the lack of a protagonist, the copious amount of characters introduced, and the lack of a main plot arc led me to feel that Grace of Kings read as a series of vignettes, rather than a novel.
The entire novel is basically a series of short stories. An example of this is Kuni Garu’s meeting with Chief Kyzen in Tan Adu (312). Kuni muses, “The kings and dukes of Cocru, Amu, and Gan had all tried, at one time or another, to pacify the island” (312), but in this scene Kuni is shown to match wits with the Chief and be accepted by him which is a feat no one else has ever been able to accomplish. This scene is complete within itself and could easily be taken out of the novel as a standalone short story. Despite Chief Kyzen’s significant role in this scene, he doesn’t play another significant role in the story. The book simply moves on to another time period and another country within the fantasy setting.
There are even cases where mini-episodes take place within a chapter. For example, the story that is introduced early on about Dazu Zyndu. This story only spans two pages, from page eighteen to nineteen, but it encompasses Dazu’s entire transition from childhood to a young man. He begins this story as a sickly boy, but after training with the master swordsman, Medo, he becomes a great swordsman himself. Liu writes of Dazu’s transition, “The young man could hardly recognize the reflection. His shoulders filled the frame of the mirror” (19).
*Note: Spoiler for a major character death in the next paragraph. Skip this paragraph if you haven’t read the book.
Another reason why The Grace of Kings reads like a vignette is because there isn’t a clear protagonist presented. Up until chapter twenty-seven, Phin Zyndu, along with a few others, seemed to be a significant character, primarily because of his role in raising Mata. However, Princess Kikomi kills him in his sleep about halfway through the book; “She lifted Phin’s chin, and as he stirred in his sleep, she plunged the dagger deep into the soft hollow of his neck” (299). In each of the short stories, there seem to be sperate protagonists. In the case of the example above, Kikomi appears to be the protagonist rather than Phin, yet in other chapters, she may have been presented as a minor character. In a traditional novel, it would be odd to kill a main character in the middle of the story, which provides further evidence that The Grace of Kings is not written as a traditional novel.
Though there doesn’t seem to be clear protagonists and the stories span great distances and time periods, they all do have connections. When Kuni says to Luan Zya, “You are the kite rider…You are the man who tried to kill the emperor” (195), he is referring back to an event that occurred in chapter one. This also happens with the deer motif. Throughout the novel, the deer is mentioned. At different time periods the deer is only allowed to be referred to as a horse, but in later cases, some admit that it is, in fact, a deer. These two elements, among others, allow for connections within the vignettes to be formed.
If Grace of Kings was pitched as a series of vignettes set within a specific fantasy world, perhaps I would have been able to enjoy it more. However, I kept searching for a clear overarching plot and protagonists to connect with. Overall, I can respect Liu’s fantasy world as a fantasy writer myself, but I cannot say that I enjoyed this book as a reader. Let me know if you’ve read this one and how you felt about it. I’d love to discuss it with you.
What I’m Wearing:
Everything I’m wearing in this photo is from Kate Spade: my dress, my heels, and my bangles.
*Pancer: To write by the seat of your pants. This means a writer begins merely writing without a formal outline. They let the story unfold as they’re writing.
Liu, Ken. The Grace of Kings. Saga Press, 2015.