Liu’s stories have won most major critical science-fiction and fantasy awards. His first novel, inspired by the civil chaos stemming from the death of China’s first emperor, is poised to break him out to a more commercial audience.
The island nations of Dara only ceased warring with one another when King Réon of Xana conquered them and united them into an empire. But now the emperor is dead; his young, spoiled heir actively avoids ruling, and his power-hungry advisers are not up to the task, either. Old rivalries stir as various rebellions spring up. Chief among the rebels are two men of the old kingdom of Cocru: the sneaky, clever commoner-turned–able politician Kuni Garu and the deposed noble Mata Zyndu, an 8-foot-tall, double-pupiled warrior who values honor above all else. At first, Kuni and Mata are like brothers, but their ideological differences soon drive them apart. The epic fantasy genre can only be enriched by more novels drawing from non-Western traditions. Liu’s ambitious work expertly blends mythology, history, military tactics, and technological innovation (airships and submarines). There are plenty of excellent action scenes—the scene in which Kuni and his allies employ horned, scaled whales to attack an armada is particularly enjoyable. However, Liu’s characters could use a bit more texture; at times, they seem little more than puppets manipulated by Dara’s gods—or perhaps by the author: the novel is a door-stopper of an argument for the value of brains over brawn and flexible thinking over hidebound tradition. Liu’s plotting can also appear a bit thin and contrived; the outcomes of too many key battles hinge on one side contemptuously underestimating the other. Perhaps history bears Liu out on this point, but it doesn't make for convincing fiction.
A reasonable start, on the whole; let’s see where the series goes.