The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
The empire of Dara is a rather new one, created by it's current emperor as he conquered Dara's traditional neighbors and allies in Dara's name, it is a mixed but not altogether dissimilar country. But no citizen in occupation truly wants to give up their country and there are potential rebels everywhere. Rather unintentionally, two unlikely men begin to make a name for themselves, bandit among other things Kuni Garu and son of a disposed duke Mata Zyndu begin to stir up their world as even more plots build and unfurl like dandelions in a field.
The Grace of Kings is technically an epic fantasy series but I honestly don't think that moniker fits the series very well. There is an active pantheon of gods and some weird creatures but the "monsters" feel like a natural part of the world and there is no magic or otherwise supernatural acts that aren't related to the gods, that just doesn't feel very fantasy-like to me. I know that is the common term for this type of book (and saying "alternate world" doesn't feel quite right either) but I was hoping for a little more fantasy. I also disagree with calling it an epic, for me an epic is a book where I'll have a moment when reading it when I can see all of the plot threads coming together into something greater than the sum of their parts, the kind of story that starts small and grows enormous. This book has many different characters, locations, and plotlines but I never had that sense of wonder, it simply felt like a book that was taking too long to tell a story where many parts didn't even matter in the end.
This is a story about an empire, newly minted and under attack by all of the people it united. As such it has quite a few moving parts, human and divine, but at some level I had a hard time buying into the story. Simply put, the characters didn't feel like people to me. They were all either oh-so-clever and yet undone at least once by freak accidents or through an uncharacteristically stupid move, or arrogant to a fault and I resented how blatantly obviously Lui's writing was (ie "the readers shouldn't like or even sympathize with this character!").
I remember one part in particular where one character, I believe a scholar, was bemoaning to himself how the emperor had changed the writing system to a unified, simplified system that anyone could learn, all of the people who had previously translated the writings from kingdom to kingdom were out of work. There totally is a way to make that complaint more sympathetic, you have the character highlight the cultural heritage being lost, the possibility that current works may be unreadable in the future, that they won't be able to save them all etc. But here Lui makes it clear that hey, even though we are getting a lengthy backstory on this character (which is a trick he's fond of but I'm not, at least it was shorter than when Girl With the Dragon Tattoo did the same thing) this is not a character we should root for or even expect to survive very long. The "heroes" are presented with an equal number of flaws and, instead of finding them relatable for them, I found myself disliking the characters for those flaws and ended up with a book where I didn't care about a single person in it.
When I first heard that the female characters in GoK aren't treated very well I was worried that I was about to read a book where all of the women would be raped and murdered. Thankfully the story doesn't do that but it's still doesn't handle the female characters very well. There are only three main female characters (all point of view but all main characters are point of view) compared to fifteen or twenty male characters and each of them is relevant to the story because of their relationship to Kuni. Two of them are his wives, one is one of his military leaders. The wives both enter the story after they meet him, the military lady has an explanation for what she was doing before she met Kuni, so unlike many of the male characters (who we saw in their own stories in real time before they joined up with Kuni), they can't "enter" the story on their own merits, they have to be connected to Kuni first. That this is the set-up for all three of them is a bad thing for starters and in the end none of them become major movers and shakers in the story either. The military lady also suffers from "well I managed this but I have to be shown that other women can as well", one wife is hamstrung by the story and never gets to help advance the plot, and the other wife has the closest thing to actual magic that appears in the books, the ability to manipulate smoke and scents to cloud or clear people's minds! It's presented in a really Mary-Su way, we have a person with incredible talents completely unlike everyone else's, probably no one else could learn them, and yet it leaves them vulnerable in that's-not-really-a-weakness sort of ways. None of these women are very "satisfying" characters to read about and considering they are the only important female characters, well, the female characters in GoK aren't treated very well.
This is the first book in the Dandelion Dynasty series (the dandelion vs chrysanthemum imagery was the lone thing in the book I thought was rather clever) and while I can certainly see where there's room for the story to continue, I also feel like the book can be read as a standalone since it wraps up rather neatly. Even if it didn't, I obviously have no intention of continuing and will continue to grumble that I never seem to like any of the stories I find that are set in ancient China.