The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu

The Wall of Storms: The Dandelion Dynasty Book 2
Ken Liu
Head of Zeus, 880 pages
Review: Iain Maloney

The Wall of Storms is the second book in Ken Liu’s The Dandelion Dynasty series and can be described as ‘epic’ without fear of hyperbole. Clocking in at 880 pages and 1.2kg in hardback it is a daunting prospect for those of us who like to read in bed without fear of broken noses or fly regularly and worry that we may be forced to check our reading material into the hold.

SF and fantasy tend to throw up long books, sometimes out of necessity, often because of wilful self-indulgence on the part of a writer in a position to ignore editorial cuts (naming no Rowlings) and other times because of editorial negligence, allowing scaffolding from a first draft to survive into print. Book one was 656 pages long, and without an ounce of fat on it, but when I unpacked the hardback of The Wall of Storms (in a box with a hardback of Cixin Liu’s Death’s End and four or five 500+ page paperbacks, my postman must be cursing me) I was initially disheartened.

Fortunately, the length is entirely justified (the weight less so – in Japan long books are regularly split into two or three parts and priced accordingly, an acknowledgement that many people still read real books on public transport and that hernias are painful). In The Grace of Kings Liu’s canvas was already spectacularly broad but now the addition of lands over the horizon and new characters with relevant backstories to explore show once again that Liu is a writer at the top of his game.

The series is set in the Islands of Dara (maps helpfully provided), an Earthsea-esque world existing in its own time and space. Heavily influenced by Chinese history and philosophy, this is a story of empires rising and falling that fans of Game of Thrones will appreciate (and hopefully a canny TV network). In The Grace of Kings the empire ruled with an iron fist by Mapidere is overthrown by Kuni Garu, a fun-loving bandit from humble origins, and Mata Zyndu, a ferocious warrior with rigid ideas of honour and duty. The two heroes soon turn against each other and, following a bit of regratable betrayal, Kuni Garu ends part one as the new emperor, renamed Ragin.

As The Wall of Storms opens there has been peace for six years and Ragin is attempting to introduce an era of enlightened rule, reforming the bureaucracy to bring in civil service exams, ending elite patronage and promoting gender equality. But his empire, based on a network of debts and loyalty, is fragile and his most important piece of business is ensuring the succession. With two sons by different mothers, the stage is set for political scheming, backstabbing and a descent into factional civil war.

Added to this powder keg is the Lyucu, a warrior nation from across the ocean beyond the wall of storms (a literal wall of storms which stops not only ships but the gods of Dara). Seeking a better home for his people, Pekyu Tenryo Roatan leads an invasion of Dara armed with intelligence from earlier contact between the two nations. Their sudden arrival and quick victories destabilises Dara and threatens the downfall of Ragin’s fledgling dynasty and the enslavement of the citizens under the Lyucu yoke.

Drawing on clear Chinese inspiration (the wall, hordes from the north), the drama and action is impressive, delivered in compelling prose and tight set-piece scenes. Even the philosophical discussions and scientific explorations that drive the twists in the plot skip along with an urgency. But Liu’s real skill is in keeping the story rooted in the hearts and lives of real people, regardless of the overall scale of the work. Secret desires, petty jealousies, misunderstandings and burning passions seep through the cracks in the empire. Ragin – and the reader – is never allowed to forget that war hurts the innocent far more than the leaders who wage it. Farmland is ravaged, civilian hostages are flash-roasted by the dragon-like garinafin, and families are divided, turned against each other. While Game of Thrones is focused heavily on those who may occupy the throne, Liu’s books are more egalitarian, giving equal attention to both the players of those games and those often considered little more than pawns.

The Wall of Storms is clearly part of a much longer series, so it ends with the pieces set for the next step in the journey. Given Liu’s prodigious work rate (The Grace of Kings came out in 2015, 2016 saw the publication of The Wall of Storms, The Paper Menagerie and other stories, his translation of Cixin Liu’s Death’s End and Invisible Planets, a collection of Chinese science fiction he edited) we won’t have too long to wait. I’m off now to the gym for a weight-training program in anticipation of part three.