Expert Voices

'The Grace of Kings' (US 2015): Book Excerpt

silkpunk, The Grace of Kings book cover
"The Grace of Kings" (Saga Press, 2015). (Image credit: Saga Press)

Ken Liu is an author whose fiction has appeared in such outlets as F&SF, Asimov's, Analog, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Clarkesworld. Liu is the recipient of the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and The World Fantasy Award, all for "The Paper Menagerie," and won an additional Hugo for his story "Mono No Aware." Liu's debut novel, "The Grace of Kings" (Saga, 2015), the first in a fantasy series, will be published in April 2015. Liu contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights

In his fantasy novel "The Grace of Kings," author Ken Liu creates an alternative East-Asian martial history with a unique approach to airships, mounted battle kites and underwater boats — a technological style he calls silkpunk. Read an excerpt from his novel below and an essay about his approach in "'Silkpunk': Redefining Technology for 'The Grace of Kings'."

Excerpted from The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. Copyright 2015. Published By Saga Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Used by permission from the publisher. Not for reprint without permission.

Chapter 5

It was only a dream, thought the emperor. 

Some dreams are important: signs, portents, glances of unrealized potential. But others are mere meaningless creations of a busy mind. A great man must pay attention only to dreams that can become true. 

It had been the dream of generations of kings of Xana to win the respect of the rest of the Islands of Dara. The men of those other Tiro states, closer together and more populous, had always treated remote Xana with contempt: comedians from Amu mocked her accent, merchants from Gan cheated her buyers, poets from Cocru imagined her a land without manners, barely better than the savages who had once lived in Dara before the Settlement. The insults and slights became part of the memory of every Xana child who encountered outsiders.

Respect had to be earned by force. The men of Dara must be made to tremble before the might of Xana. 

The rise of Xana was slow and took many years.

Since time immemorial, the children of Dara had been making paper-and-bamboo balloons, hanging candles from them, and then releasing the paper crafts to drift into the dark night sky over the endless ocean, tiny pockets of hot air floating like glowing jellyfish of the skies.

One night, as Mapidéré's father, King Dézan, observed children playing with flying lanterns near the palace, he had a flash of insight: Such balloons, properly scaled up, could change the tide of battle.

Dézan began with balloons made of layers of silk wrapped around a wire-and-bamboo framework. They floated on hot air generated by burning bags full of swamp gas. One or two soldiers, carried up in a gondola, could act as lookouts to spot potential ambushes or reconnoiter for distant fleets. Over time, the use of flame bombs — burning jars of sticky tar mixed with hot oil dropped from the gondolas — gave the balloons offensive capabilities. The other Tiro states quickly copied these Xana innovations.

But then came the discovery by Kino Ye, a Xana engineer, of an odorless, colorless gas that was lighter than air. The gas was found only at bubbling Lake Dako, on the side of Mount Kiji. When properly sealed up in airtight bags, the gas provided enormous lift, and could keep ships afloat in the air indefinitely. Propelled by enormous, winglike oars, these powerful airships made quick work of the passive, unreliable hot air balloons put up by the other states.

Moreover, the airships were deadly to navies, with their wooden hulls and cloth sails. A few airships could decimate an entire fleet caught by surprise. The only effective countermeasure involved long-range arrows propelled by firework rockets, but these were expensive and often proved even more dangerous to the other ships on the surface when they fell back down at the end of their long arcing flight, still burning.

King Dézan had contented himself with merely gaining the respect of the other Tiro states. His successor, the young and ambitious King Réon, decided that he preferred to dream a bigger dream, a dream that no one had dared to voice since the days of the Ano: to conquer all the Tiro states and unify the Islands of Dara.

Aided by the great airships, Xana navies and armies swept from victory to victory. It took thirty years of unceasing war for King Réon to conquer all the other six Tiro states. Even great Cocru, with its famed cavalry and skilled swordsmen, could not stand against him in the field. The last King of Cocru jumped into the sea when the capital Çaruza fell because he could not bear to be a naked captive in Réon's court.

So Réon declared himself Lord of All Dara and renamed himself Mapidéré, the First Emperor. He saw himself as the beginning of a new kind of power, a power that would transform the world.

"The time for kings is over. I am the King of Kings."

It was a new dawn, but the Imperial Procession remained where it was. 

The emperor was still lying in his tent. The pain in his stomach was so intense that he could not get up. Even breathing seemed to take too much energy. 

"Send our fastest airship, and bring me the crown prince."

I must warn Pulo to prepare for the coming war, thought the emperor. The gods have prophesied it. But perhaps it can still be stopped — even the gods admit that they are not always in control.

Chatelain Goran Pira held his ear close to the emperor's trembling lips and nodded. But there was a glint in his eyes, a glint that the emperor did not see. 

The emperor lay, dreaming of his grand projects. There were still so many things to do, so many tasks unfinished.

Pira summoned Prime Minister Lügo Crupo to his own tent, a tiny, unassuming dome next to the giant Imperial pavilion, like a hermit crab sheltered next to a thirty-year-old conch.

"The emperor is very ill," Pira said. The hand holding the teacup was still. "No one knows the true extent of his sickness, yet, except for me — and now you. He has asked to see the crown prince."

"I will send Time's Arrow," Crupo said. Crown Prince Pulo was away in Rui supervising the construction of the Grand Tunnels with General Gotha Tonyeti. Even Time's Arrow, the empire's fastest airship, oaring the air nonstop with shifts of conscripted laborers, would take almost two full days to get there and two more to return. 

"Well, let's ponder that a bit," Pira said. His expression was unreadable.

"What is there to ponder?" 

"Tell me, Prime Minister, who holds more weight in the heart of the crown prince? You or General Tonyeti? Who does he think has done more for Xana? Who does he trust?"

"That's a stupid question. General Tonyeti was responsible for the conquest of Cocru, the last and most defiant of the Six States; the crown prince has spent many years with him in the field, practically growing up in his company. It's perfectly understandable that the crown prince values him."

"Yet you have administered the empire for the better part of two decades, weighed and measured the fates of millions, made all the hard decisions, and did all you could to translate the emperor's dreams into reality. Don't you believe that your contributions are worth more than that of an old warrior who knows only how to fight and kill?"

Crupo said nothing in response and sipped his tea.

Pira smiled and pressed further. "If the crown prince accedes to the throne, the seal of the prime minister might be handed to Tonyeti. And someone would be looking for a new job."

"A loyal servant does not think of things outside of his control."

"But if young Prince Loshi, your student, were to ascend to the throne instead of his brother, things might be very different."

Crupo felt the hairs on his back stand on their ends. His eyes widened. "What you are saying . . . should not be said."

"Whether I say something or not, Prime Minister, the world will go on in accordance with its rules. Ingaan pha naüran i gipi lothu, as the Ano sages would say. Fortune favors the bold."

Pira placed something on the tea tray. He lifted his sleeves so that Crupo could take a quick peek. It was the Imperial Seal. Whatever document held its impression was the law of the land.

Crupo stared at Pira with his dark-brown eyes, and Pira stared placidly back.

After a moment, Crupo's face relaxed. He sighed. "This is a chaotic world, Chatelain. It can sometimes be difficult for servants to express their loyalty clearly. I will be guided by you." 

Pira smiled.

As Emperor Mapidéré lay in his bed, he banked the embers of his vision for how Dara ought to be.

The first project that he had conceived of was the Grand Tunnels. He would chain Dara together by a system of undersea tunnels so that never again would the islands splinter into rival states. With the tunnels in place, commerce would flow between the islands and peoples would mix. The empire's soldiers would be able to ride from one end of Dara to the other without ever having to set foot in a boat or airship.

This is madness! declared the engineers and scholars. Nature and the gods will not permit it. What will travelers eat and drink? How will they breathe in darkness, under the sea? And where will we find the men to do this?

The emperor brushed aside their concerns. Didn't they also think that it was impossible for Xana to win? To conquer all the Islands of Dara? It was glorious to fight against men, but even more glorious to bend heaven, tame the sea, and reshape the earth.

Every problem had a solution. There would be side caverns dug every twenty miles or so, way stations for travelers bound between the islands. Glowing mushrooms would be cultivated in the dark to provide food, and water pulled out of the damp air with fog fences. If necessary, giant bellows would be installed at the tunnel entrances to pump fresh air throughout the system with bamboo pipes.

He decreed that every man chosen by lottery had to leave his profession, his fields, his workshop, his family, and go where the emperor wanted him to be, to labor under the watchful eyes of Xana soldiers. Young men were forced to leave their families behind for a decade or more, as they grew old under the sea, chained in permanent darkness, slaving away for a dream as grand as it was impossible. When men died, their bodies were cremated and the ashes sent home in tiny, unmarked boxes no bigger than the wooden tray for holding waste bones and fruit pits. And their sons would be conscripted to take their place.

Petty and shortsighted peasants could not understand his vision. They complained and cursed Mapidéré's name in secret. But he persevered. When he saw how little progress had been made, he simply drafted more men.

The harshness of your laws is against the teachings of Kon Fiji, the One True Sage, the great scholar Huzo Tuan, one of the emperor's advisers, said. Yours are not the acts of a wise ruler.

The emperor was disappointed. Mapidéré had always respected Tuan and hoped such an enlightened man could see further than the others. But he could not permit the man to live after such criticism. Mapidéré gave Tuan a grand funeral and published a collection of his writings posthumously, edited by the emperor himself.

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He had many other ideas about how to improve the world. For instance, he thought all the people of Dara ought to write the same way, instead of each locale maintaining its own variant of the ancient Ano logograms and its own way of arranging the zyndari letters into word-squares.

Just remembering how the scholars of the conquered Tiro states had howled at the Edict on Uniformity of Speech and Writing brought a smile to the emperor's face. The edict had elevated the Xana dialect and the Xana script into standards for all of Dara. Virtually all the literati outside of the Xana home islands of Rui and Dasu foamed at their mouths and called the edict a crime against civilization. But Mapidéré knew perfectly well that what they were really objecting to was the loss of power. Once all the children had been educated under one standard script and one standard dialect, the local scholars no longer could dictate what thoughts could spread within their realm of influence. Ideas from outside — such as Imperial edicts, poetry, the fruits of the culture of other Tiro states, an official history that superseded the local interpretations — could spread across all of Dara without the ancient barriers put up by seven incompatible scripts. And if scholars could no longer show their erudition by knowing how to write the same thing in seven different ways, good riddance!

Also, Mapidéré thought everyone should build their ships following the same specifications — ones he judged to be the best. He believed old books were fatuous and contained nothing useful for the future, so he collected them and burned every copy except one, and these last copies he stored deep in the bowels of the Great Library in Pan, the Immaculate City where everything was new, where only those who would not be corrupted by outdated foolishness could see them.

Scholars protested and wrote tracts denouncing him as a tyrant. But they were only scholars, with no strength to lift swords. He had two hundred of them buried alive and cut off the writing hands of a thousand more. The protests and tracts stopped.

The world was still so imperfect, and great men were always misunderstood by their own age.

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