The Grace of Kings: Early Thoughts

Posted: January 5, 2016 in Critical Hit
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Right now, I’m reading The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu. It’s a sprawling silkpunk epic with a solid eye for detail and characterisation, and it’s a testament to how much I’m enjoying it otherwise that I’ve managed to get 225 pages into a 623 page book – which is to say, about a third of the way through – before the absence of ladies started to bother me. This is, I suspect, due to two main factors besides the easy prose and engaging politics: firstly, that the lack of women isn’t compounded by the presence of myriad misogynistic men, as it so often is elsewhere; and secondly, because The Grace of Kings has a List of Major Characters printed at the front, which I skimmed before starting (but did not read in depth, for fear of spoilers), and which contained multiple female names, sufficient that, on some level, I put the question out of mind.

But after 225 pages of continually shifting POVs, only a brief few of which have entailed forays into the perspectives of women, I was moved to go back and read the List over. Including both mortals and deities, it contains a total of 40 characters, only eight of whom are women, three of whom are goddesses rather than humans. A third of the way through the book, all the goddesses have made fleeting appearances, but only one of the human women, Jia, has thus far entered the story.

Here, in order of their appearance on the list, are the descriptions of the eight women:

Jia Matiza: the daughter of a rancher; a skilled herbalist; Kuni’s wife.

Lady Risana: an illusionist and accomplished musician.

Soto: Jia’s housekeeper. [Note: I’m assuming Soto’s gender on the basis that ‘housekeeper’ seems to be a feminine profession in this setting.]

Lady Mira: an embroiderer and songstress from Tunoa; the only woman who understands Mata.

Princess Kikomi and King Ponadomu of Amu: the jewel of Arulugi and her granduncle.

Tututika: patron of Amu; youngest of the gods; goddess of agriculture, beauty, and fresh water; her pawi is the golden carp.

Kana and Rapa: twin patrons of Cocru; Kana is the goddess of fire, ash, cremation and death; Rapa is the goddess of ice, snow, glaciers, and sleep; their pawi are twin ravens: one black, one white.

Of the 32 male characters listed as significant, only four are yet to appear; several, in fact, have already met their death. Similarly, while three of the five human women are described in the List in terms of their relationships to various men, the reverse is true of in only one case; and even then, it’s only because, for whatever reason, King Ponadomu and Princess Kikomi share a single entry. Kuni is not described as Jia’s husband, and Mata is not described as Lady Mira’s anything. In addition, the novel thus far has touched on numerous named male characters not featured in the List, but only a scant number of women. And while the main male characters aren’t, in the main, overtly misogynistic, the fact that women and girls are mentioned as being “sold to the indigo houses” – brothels, by inference – as punishments for various familial uprisings doesn’t create a happy background picture.

Here’s why this bothers me:

In every other respect, The Grace of Kings is an extremely well-researched, well-written novel. The world Liu has constructed is believable and original, and as such, I’m keen to continue reading it. But in a story that’s all about lost heirs, revolution, alliances and reclaimed thrones, the politics of which are otherwise meticulously detailed, the absence of women feels, not just conspicuous, but wrong. With all these would-be kings and political players jockeying for acclaim, allies and power over a timeframe that already spans some twelve-plus years, you’d think the subject of political marriages and the need to cement new reigns with heirs would have been raised at least once. But no: in 225 pages, not a single king has married, or asked about somebody’s daughters, or mentioned their wives, or anything. The new courts and armies are seemingly male-only. Given the implied sexism of a society that requires its daughters (as we know from Jia’s fleeting perspective) to behave with propriety and marry well, the asides about the indigo houses and the cautionary backstory of a chatelaine who fell in love with his king’s concubine and had to watch both her and their child killed for his presumption – and as much as I’m loathe to listen to misogynistic characters prate their views at length – the near-total absence of even discussion of women by men feels utterly bizarre.

You cannot found dynasties without women; the book is about founding dynasties; yet there are almost no women. It’s not even that Liu has reduced them to the barest heir-providing necessities – Jia, in those rare moments when we see her, is an accomplished, interesting character – but rather that, despite every other care he’s taken to build his world, he hasn’t really stopped to think about women’s roles within it. The detail that stands out for me here is his lack of a goddess of childbirth, children, mothers, fertility,  or women, or even of an actual mother goddess, as though women in this setting have no deity specific to them or their roles. There’s a patron of the gods – Kiji, Lord of the Air – and deities who provide over other seemingly masculine endeavours and professions – a god of fishermen, a god of war and the forge – but no corresponding patroness of femininity. The closest we come is Tututika, who governs beauty and agriculture, which ought to make her a guardian of fertility at least, and yet that vital aspect isn’t mentioned. Examine any pantheon, ancient or modern, and there are goddesses for all these things and more: Amaterasu, Hathor, Parvati, Innana, Xi Wangmu, Hera, Yemoja. The absence of an equivalent in Liu’s world – of a deity to govern such a vital sphere of mortal life – is therefore jarring, an unrealistic note in an otherwise well-made world.

Look: I am pretty firmly established at this point as someone who enjoys the presence of active female characters in a narrative. That’s a bias of mine! I admit it freely! And as I’ve said, The Grace of Kings is a book I’m really enjoying, and which may yet prove me wrong: I have, after all, got another two thirds left to read, and if things turn around in that section, I’ll accord them due respect. But from my current perch of 225 pages, I just can’t understand how, with all the research and thought that clearly went into every other aspect of the worldbuilding, Liu has seemingly managed to miss the significance of women in a story about founding dynasties, not just in terms of the necessary political machinations of his male characters, but in building his pantheon of active gods with a stake in the proceedings. In this world, women have no patron deity to watch over them, no guardian they pray to in childbirth or marriage. The gods argue about their various peoples being ill-treated at the hands of others, but for all the women being sold to indigo houses, deprived of their sons and husbands by the cruelties of successive regimes, there is no mother goddess advocating for their rights.

Which is, perhaps, why the mortal women are so silent, so absent. Unlike the men, they have no god to speak for them, and so say nothing at all.

  1. I finished ‘Grace of Kings’ a week or so ago, and I’ll try not to spoil it for you, but… um. It doesn’t get much better from this aspect.

    There’s mention of a mother of the gods at some point, not sure if that comes up in that first third. She’s just there as creation myth background though.

    And a lot of characters end badly, including women. There are one or two glimmers towards addressing a couple of the issues you mention, but mostly the story is about Kuni and Mata and war.

    I think one of the other issues is that, as sprawling and eventful as it is, the perspectives aren’t as intimate as I would like. Jia, for instance, should get more screen time.

  2. Nicole Lisa says:

    *Waits for you to get to Kikomi*
    *Waits for you to get to [forgot her name because I read it over the summer]*

  3. Standback says:

    (((Very Vague Spoilers for the General Direction of GoK)))

    IMHO, certain elements of “Grace of Kings” rely very heavily on the conceit that its various societies are effectively blind to the presence and influence of women — often to the point of willful ignorance.

    So in that sense, what you’re seeing now could be seen as the build-up to that eventual payoff. He’s portraying a world that *really is* that skewed, because that’s going to be a point of change in the future.

    Unfortunately, as you say, that reduces the society at GoK’s starting point to one of absurd blindness; to sexism so very extreme that it’s actually *successfully* marginalized basically all of its women into real, absolute insignificance. It just doesn’t feel credible.

    (This is actually a larger issue I had with GoK; I felt the narrative tended to establish situations that bluntly illustrated a theme or a conflict, but failed to back it up with basic plausibility.)

  4. Em says:

    There’s also Gin Matiza, much nearer the end, who basically shows up to lampshade some of these problems. “Hey, you guys realize you’re losing tons of great opportunities by ignoring half the population, right? Let me help you with that! We have so much underutilized potential which I will start utilizing! Um, a bit. Until I start forgetting too because I’m getting sucked into the existing power structure. I guess things were getting too radical for a minute.”

    I would dearly love a remix version of this book with Gin Matiza and Jia as co-protagonists.

  5. Standback says:

    (I posted a response a few days ago, and it looks like it might be stuck in moderation? When I try to repost, I get a message saying “Looks like you already wrote that!,” which I did. My post began with the phrase “IMHO, certain elements of “Grace of Kings” rely very heavily on the conceit that its various societies are effectively blind to the presence and influence of women”.

    I don’t think I wrote anything problematic there. If I did, do let me know, though!)

  6. […] Grace of Kings has been criticised for having limited female representation.  This is certainly true for the first half where the […]

  7. Saoki says:

    I’m reading it right now. 46% into it and, well, I met Kikomi. I was enjoying the mad wuxia-ness of this book, until Kikomi. Now I just want to punch things.

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