The Paper Menagerie

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you will know that I loved Ken Liu’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings. I found it a highly enjoyable read, by turns comic, sweeping, epic, tragic, but always with that element of wonder that makes fantasy the incredible genre that it is, taking you outside reality but also giving you a new, sometimes literally more magical vantage point from which to view the world and your place within it. I greatly admired Liu’s light, deft way with words, that spun this complex, engaging world into existence, and am looking forward to coming back to Dara and its denizens, later this year.

Paper-Menagerie-his-rezWith his new book, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, Liu shows that he is capable of vast range. Sure, in some of the stories you see the comic master who orchestrated coups and wondrous escapes in Dara, in others you see a thoughtful, poignant writer, who asks tough questions and leaves you with no certain answers. Many of these stories, such the one that gives the collection its title, ‘The Paper Menagerie’, have been published, read and loved before, and this book brings them together, to give it what Liu calls ‘the flavour of a retrospective’, a brief look at his career as a short story writer. Indeed, the idea of memory, and memory as a source of conflict and confluence in communication, seems a running theme in many of these narratives, most powerfully in the last story of the collection, ‘The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary’.

Though many stories are indeed stitched around the common theme of memory, recording, and how we retell stories, what I can say about Liu’s work is this: it is remarkably wide ranging. From the space-opera-like ‘The Waves’ to  ‘All the Flavors’, the magical-realist novella set in early twentieth century Idaho, Liu presents a vast range of readerly experiences. The stories slip between science fiction and fantasy, and indeed, Liu confesses at the start that he doesn’t ‘pay much attention’ to the distinction between the two genres. He builds worlds that contain elements of both: for instance, in ‘Good Hunting’ (a story that reminded me inexplicably of Gaiman’s work) a young demon hunter meets a hulijing, a spirit who tests his ideas of good and bad. As the world changes around them, he adapts to it with the help of science, learning new principles of engineering and physics, while others, most notably his father, struggle to find a new place in this world without mystery, seemingly without magic. What results is a beautiful blend of the best elements of myth, fantasy and science fiction, the author moving us seamlessly between all three.

What I really like about Liu’s work is the seeming effortlessness of his writing, of being able to introduce a whole new section of readers to worlds and mythologies that have remained ‘outside’ the Western canon for a long time. ‘I’ve never consciously put myself forth as a minority in my work,’ Liu told me in an interview, and that filters through. Rather than explaining painstakingly any references to a non-Western/non-white culture, or consciously building himself up to a ‘representative’ of anything, Liu works these elements into his stories and allows readers to either learn more about them from the context, or look them up online in they’re really interested. For me personally, this is an extremely welcome and emulation-worthy style. Coming from a culture (or cultures, I should say) that is not as well-known to readers of epic fantasy as say, medieval England, it’s sometimes hard to know when to draw the line between fantasising and exoticising. Liu never makes that mistake. When he narrates martial exploits of soldiers from the many now-Chinese kingdoms, or even talks of the encounters between East and West, whether in the gold-springs of the Midwest or the paddy fields of US-held Taiwan, Liu never seems to consciously present one side as more or less ‘real’ or ‘normal’ than the other. ‘…the individual is the intersection of multiple spheres of identity,’ he had said in the same interview, and he bears that out in his writing. His characters, whether they hail to pasts far distant, or futures beyond our imagining, are all composites of multiple cultures, influences, tastes.

The stories in this volume moved me, none more so than the last, ‘The Man Who Ended History’. I feel it is an especially important story for the time we live in, the sort of conflicts over ‘ownership’, nation and culture that rage around us. Again, perhaps because of where I come from, where these questions have gained even more immediacy, I felt drawn to this story more than any other in his collection. Liu uses the structure of a transcribed documentary to tell the story of a man who, with the help of his physicist wife, builds a time machine, that takes people back to the past, literally, and allows them to observe it for themselves. The period he selects is a controversial, horrifying one in Manchu, China during the Second World War. The conflicts the testimonials give rise to, and the old wounds they dredge up, bring the two countries, China and Japan, and belatedly the US, to the brink of another battle, and I can honestly say that the story definitely kept me on the edge of my seat, and made me think a lot about how we deal with the past, who it can be said to belong to, if anyone at all.

To sum up, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is a brilliant read. Savour it, sink into Liu’s words, and allow yourself to be carried away by a master storyteller. He is definitely one of my favourite fantasy authors working today, and inspires me as few others do.

Quick words with Ken Liu

As my review would tell you, I was bowled over by Ken Liu’s debut novel, ‘The Grace of Kings’. After tying up Book 2 (which, he assures me, is full of ‘cool stuff’), Ken was kind enough to answer some questions about his writing, what he thinks of diversity in SFF and fantasy in general.

1) A clichéd question first! How did you fall in love with fantasy?

Ha, my answer might be a little different from many other American readers and writers.

I first fell in love with the wuxia fantasies of Jin Yong. I love the way he reworks history and adds what we think of as “modern” elements (intricate technology, interest-group politics, patriotism) into historical settings. As well, he uses fantastic touches like impossible superpowers, legendary creatures, and arcane knowledge to literalize what otherwise might only be metaphors.

The influence of Jin Yong can be felt and seen in The Grace of Kings as well as many other fantasy stories I’ve written.

2) Was the diversity of Dara (which I celebrated in the review) a conscious decision, or was it just something that came about naturally?

Both. I love celebrating the fact that we live in a diverse world. I think it’s natural to write fiction that makes everyone feel included.

At the same time, since one of the goals of The Grace of Kings was to change the way Western readers view “Chinese-ness” in fantasy, it was important to me to make the cast diverse to prevent the reader from falling into the trap of thinking “Oh, these are all Chinese people.”

3) I’ve often assumed that my favourite characters from fantasy books, when not described otherwise, looked like me, ie, non-Western and dark-skinned, and been surprised and a little disconcerted when fan art depictions turned out to be overwhelmingly white. Has this ‘whitewashing’ of fantasy ever bothered you?

One of the ways in which a visual medium like film differs from a written medium like fiction is how constrained the audience is in terms of imagining the characters. Because a work of fiction can’t slam you in the face with the physical features of the character on every page, fan art can be very revelatory of the larger cultural patterns we inhabit. If a character is known for being beautiful or handsome, how are they portrayed in fan art? If a character is known for being brutal or ugly, how are they portrayed in fan art?

I ask myself these questions often and try to catch myself from falling into the traps of the Western gaze.

4) As a Hugo award winner yourself, what’s your take on the controversy that raged this year?

I don’t have a single take. The controversy involves many conversations between many people, and not all of them agree on the premises upon which they argue, the interpretations of events, or even the meanings of words. Indeed, there may not be a single controversy, but many overlapping controversies with very different issues at stake that need to be parsed separately.

As a writer, my interest is primarily in writing works I like and connecting with readers who enjoy my work; as a reader, my interest is primarily in discovering works that delight and astound me. In neither role are the awards terribly important, though they are a great honor, of course.

5) In your bio, you’ve noted that you and your wife came up with the universe of ‘A Grace of Kings’ together. How much of her is in the final product?

Lisa suggested the idea of re-imagining the Chu-Han Contention as an epic fantasy to me,
grace of kingsand we worked together in coming up with some of the background for Dara. She’s a busy artist with her own career, however, and we decided early on that the book would basically be my project.

6) Did you have any favourite characters in your own book?

I like Luan Zya, the scholar-engineer, the most. The ideal of retiring at the height of your success is important to Chinese culture, and I’ve always aspired to that.

7) Given the increased calls for diversity in SFF, have you ever seen yourself as consciously representing a minority in the fantasy canon? Has such identification—by yourself or others—troubled you?

I’ve never consciously put myself forth as a “minority” in my work. I’m interested in telling stories that are meaningful to me and in challenging narratives that I dislike, but I don’t write with the idea that I’m there to “represent” anyone.

It’s possible—no, probable—that such identification has been imposed on me by others. I don’t have much control over that.

8) How does your day-job as a programmer influence your writing?

I work as a litigation consultant, so my day job involves a combination of law and software programming. I don’t know if writing for machines has particularly influenced my fiction much other than the fact that I enjoy writing about technology and tech culture. I suppose if one were to squint a bit, it’s possible to also say that programmers learn a love of elegance which can be very helpful in fiction writing.

9) In ‘Paper Menagerie’, the short story (which can be read here) you explore the theme of straddling two worlds, and how adherence to one often leads to the obliteration of the other. Does fantasy, in some ways, allow for an escape or a renegotiation of this seemingly impassable divide?

“The Paper Menagerie” can be read as an argument that the notion of “choosing” one world to the exclusion of others is destructive. Straddling multiple worlds and multiple identity categories is the default for most of the world’s population, and we need not escape to fantasy to embrace the fact that an individual is the intersection of multiple spheres of identity.

10) Finally, what’s next for Ken Liu the author? 

My first collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, is coming from Saga Press on November 30, 2015. I’m currently working on the sequel to The Grace of Kings, and I’m having a ton of fun with it. There are a couple more short fiction projects and translation projects that I’m excited about, and you can keep up with what’s happening with me on my web site (http://kenliu.name) and with my mailing list (http://kenliu.name/mailing-list/).

Thank you so much for having me, and I’m glad you enjoyed the book!

The Grace of Kings


The theme of the evil Empire is a tried and tested one in high fantasy. If you need a villain, and a powerful one, it’s easy to make him hateful and seem powerful by giving him an emperorempire that’s badly governed or built on immoral foundations, such as slavery or the labour of ‘evil’ races like orcs and goblins. Our heroes, usually country boys or girls, have to destroy this empire from the ground up, and usually install a destined king in the old/corrupt ruler’s place. The story rarely follows what happens after this destined king is put in his place.

In his fantasy saga, The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu does precisely that. And what’s more, he does it in one sitting, using just the one book to tell a long, sprawling tale of a shattering empire, the heroes who ‘rescue’ it and the political games that come thereafter.

grace of kings

The Big Island of Dara is home to many races of people, their disparate lands (with distinct histories and cultures) only recently yoked together by the Empire of Xana, ruled by the ageing Mapidere. Rebellion simmers beneath the surface though, most notably in Cocru, one of the most martial of the islands and home to Mata Zyndu, descendent of a long line of marshals who fought for the king of Cocru and most recently resisted the campaigns of the Xana aggressors. So when Mapidere dies, it’s Mata Zyndu and his unlikely friend, the gangster and hustler Kuni Garu, who emerge as leaders of the revolt and the bid to destroy the Empire.

The politics of the various kingdoms are complicated by supernatural factors: the gods take sides in the conflict, choosing their own champions. They are restricted in their intereference, unable to take a very active role or directly harm/aid their chosen ones, but that just makes them all the more desperate to make sure the factions they favour come out on top.

What Liu does with this book is play with some of the old fantasy conventions: the upstart hero, the scheming Imperial servants, the beautiful, doomed princess and the cross-dressing female soldier who bests all her male opponents. But he sets it in a world so incredibly diverse that readers are sure to fall in love with it. I won’t lie—one of the many reasons I loved this book was because, unlike in many Western fantasy sagas, a character was, by not, by default, assumed to be white or of Caucasian heritage. Instead, the peoples of a Dara are a huge blend: olive-skinned, pale skinned, dark skinned, ‘ebony’ skinned…and they mingle and mix as part of one land.

Kuni is an immensely likeable character, the typical rogue with a heart of gold, scheming and beloved of his people, a pro at public relations in the manner that many upstart ‘common’ heroes tend to become. His wife, Jia, is a Lady Macbeth-like figure, pushing her husband along the path to ‘greatness’, and making the many sacrifices that are expected of her (and him) on the climb. Mata Zyndu is the typical martial hero, tall, imposing, the kind of man who births legends and who is heralded by prophecy. He comes closest to a fantasy stereotype, but what Liu does with him turns convention on its head.

My favourite characters remain Luan Zya, a tormented genius, and Rasina, an enchantress who works and shapes smoke, and can peer into the hearts of those around her. Liu creates brilliant characters who stick on in the imagination, no mean feat considering his book is quite an epic and hosts a huge number of them. Yet he endows each with character enough that they linger on, long after they’ve played their parts (some of them shorter than others).

Liu’s book is an interrogation of politics, ideals and the people who sport them, who live and die for abstract causes like freedom and a ‘better world’. In that way, it is a lot like ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, but instead of the seven tomes Martin’s series is expected to take, Liu wraps up his world in one. His style is light, comic rather than weighted, but the statements he makes are no less profound for that. Whole years pass in the course of his narrative, and characters evolve in ways you might never expect. It’s obvious that he is a writer for whom his craft is very important, and he has not been overwhelmed by his world enough to stretch it out and hammer it unnaturally thin in an effort to spend more time in telling its story than he has to.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and look forward to more from Liu soon.