By: Ken Liu
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Publisher: Gallery Books/Saga Press
WARNING: There will be spoilers for the previous books in the series
“Thera said nothing. She stilled her heart and opened her senses, to the intense carmine glow of the berries, the woodsy fragrance of the mushrooms, to the distant song of an answer-me-now, to the warm caress of a spring breeze. She let herself sink into the Flow as though diving into an eternal sea.” Ken Liu, Speaking Bones
Speaking Bones is Ken Liu’s brilliant conclusion to his epic fantasy, The Dandelion Dynasty. As I have mentioned previously, it is a unique and powerful series that adds diversity and new themes into the fantasy genre. As we come to the conclusion, Mr. Liu wraps up all the plot lines perfectly, and nothing is rushed. What amazed me throughout the entire series is that there is no magic system. The sky ships used in battle, the mechanical crubens, the field strategy to fight the Lyucu, and the Lyucu to fight Dara, were all accomplished with the ingenuity of the characters. Of course, that genius comes from Mr. Liu and the incredible imagination that he has to bring this world to life. The story focuses on two fronts. We know that Princess Thera has married Takval and traveled through the Wall of Storms to prevent reinforcements from coming to help the Lyucu fully conquer Dara. The other part is what is happening in Dara as the one-year end to the peace treaty is approaching. Dara has no way of knowing if Thera has succeeded until the wall opens, and the Lyucu are fully expecting their fellow countrymen to come to their aid. This book is non-stop action from the beginning. There are the more intimate moments of character interactions, which show us how they have continually grown throughout the series. There are many characters, and to have each with complete story arcs is no small feat. In addition to skirmishes and battles, there is the ever-present political intrigue, on both the part of Dara and the Lyucu. Challenges to authority, subterfuge, forming alliances, are present for Thera, Tanvanaki, Jia, and Phyro. They each navigate these obstacles with the strengths they have, which are vastly different and keeps the reader fully engaged. The characters who have died are still ever present as the story unfolds, as they set the tone and founded the Dandelion Dynasty, they are still influencing events that occur. I will not give anything away, but the ending of the book and the series is simply beautiful. It was absolutely perfect.
I was very impressed with the character growth in this book. I have found that in some series, the characters can stagnate at times. However, Mr. Liu’s characters develop over time, which not only is realistic, but keeps the reader engaged. Princess Fara is a prime example. It surprised me when she became a major player in the books and a force to be reckoned with. She is as smart and cunning as her father, but she also has a good heart and has become very wise. We see more of Phyro in this book as he leads Dara forces in a battle against the Lyucu, who are headed by Gotzan. They are mirror images of each other, each heading their respective forces, each having their own secret weapons. They develop a respect for each other in battle.
Phyro is more emotional than this brother and sisters. He is smart and great military leader, but sometimes he can make rash decisions. Fara comes to reason out problems, and does rely on Zomi Kidosu for advisement. However, she also has her own inner wisdom, which I loved seeing develop. I felt most for Timu, who married Tanvanaki, but could do nothing to help the people of Unredeemed Dara, the part of Dara conquered by the Lyucu. She was cruel to him, his son hated him, but his daughter Dyana loved him and tried to protect him. Timu’s story was heartbreaking. Thera remained in Ukuyu-Gonde to fight the Lyucu beside her husband, Takval. She loved him deeply, but never lost her love for Zomi. It’s quite beautiful as it shows the human heart has an infinite capacity for love. Beyond the Wall of Storms, Thera certainly has her share of struggles to deal with.
For the Lyucu, Tanvanaki has her own problems to deal with. The fanatical Cotranovu is wreaking havoc on the people of Unredeemed Dara. She has allowed her to go too far, and is at a loss of how to reign her in. If she shows weakness, she could lose her position as pekyu, however, Tanvanaki is truly disgusted by Cotranovu’s brutal acts. It’s fitting that Cotranovu stayed the same. Fanatics rarely change who they are as they steadfastly believe in what they are doing. Gotzan is the voice of reason, and leads the battle against Dara. She commits no atrocities and advocates for peace.
It was wonderful to see so many strong female characters throughout this series. Empress Jia, Gin Mazoti, Princess Thera, Tanvanaki, Zomi Kidosu, Princess Fara, Empress Rizana, Gotzan Ryoto, and Rati Yera. It was many of the female characters from Dara that made the inventions to fight the Lyucu. Some were cunning and scheming, but it did not take away from the fact that they were strong characters in their own right.
“Rati thought over everything that led to this moment: Miza Crun’s experiment with silkmotic force; Zomi, Grand Princess Thera, and Marshall Gin Mazoti’s joint invention of the silkmotic bolts; Kisli’s even-tempered archon; plants on the windowsill, reminding her of the constant support of her knowledge-craving companions; the discovery of oculium by Kisli’s alchemist friend; the playful kitten; the light-following sunflower, Lord Lutho’s favorite blossom; all Creation was connected…
“If I can soar so high,” she said, looking up with moist eyes at the emperor from her wheeled chair, “it is only because I am carried on the wings of many others.” Ken Liu, Speaking Bones
The battle scenes were spot on. The surprise garinafins that Phyro has were indeed a surprise to Gotzan heading the Lyucu. However, they had surprised of their own as they used some Dara technology and the silkmontic forces. As a scientist, I really loved the inventions that Mr. Liu thought of. It was so different from Euro-centric battle scenes, which are typically swords, siege, and brutal fighting. The mechanical crubens, flying ships, large arrows to bring down the garinafins, and so many more unique creations used silkmonic force. They studied the body of a garinafin to try and use its anatomy in creating more efficient battle weapons. It’s interesting to note that while deaths occur in battle, the gruesome scenes took place on land where Cutranovo unleashed her fanaticism on the people of Unredeemed Dara.
The world building is amazing, easy to visualize and get swept up in. Dara is the pristine part of the Empire where the palace is. Life goes on much as it did before the Lyucu invaded. It is still under the control of the Dandelion Court. Taverns and restaurants are busy, the people do not live in fear, learning continues, so it’s easy to formulate this part of the world. Unredeemed Dara is the opposite. It is the part of Dara under Lyucu control. People live in fear, they are poor, starving, and destitute. The land is barren as the Lyucu took everything and do not believe in farming. Cutranovo’s cleansing is horrific, and Mr. Liu holds nothing back to show us the despair of a people under occupation. Beyond the Wall of Storms, Princess Thera and Takval struggle at first to try and persuade what is left of his people to adapt Ukyu-Gonde to new ways of survival. It appears as barren land, which is why they don’t farm. It is an easy world to picture, but it is beautiful. It has rivers, forests, mountains, and flora and fauna. They adapted a more nomadic way of life, and Thera tries to encourage the planning for winter by planting for storage. These diametrically opposite worlds were each astonishing creations by Mr. Liu.
The final book in the in Dandelion Dynasty, Speaking Bones, is the perfect ending to this series by Ken Liu. I feel like I’ve known so many of these characters, from Kuni Gari’s and Jia’s courtship and love, his rise to Emperor, and the birth of his four children. There were so many incredible characters, to many to name, but they felt like old friends. They were richly developed and I cared about what I happened to them, which is one of the marks of great writing. If I didn’t care about them, I could not get invested in the series. Mr. Liu’s remarkable imagination created a world devoid of magic, but used science and ingenuity to create better ways to fight their wars, and improve the lives of the people of Dara. The invasion of the Lyucu served as a “rude” awakening to the people of Dara that noy only were they were not alone in the world, but this conquering force brought horrors to the people they never could have imagined. It was told in the third person perspective of many characters. The story went back and forth between Dara, as it prepared for war against the Lyucu, and Ukyu-Gonde where Thera was, trying to prevent reinforcements heading to Dara. It was never confusing and in fact, it was quite the opposite. It kept me wanting more after each chapter concluded. The action and battle scenes are fantastic, and different from other fantasy novels, since what is used in battle are unusual, complex, scientific creations. Diversity and representation continue in this book as in the others, especially as Thera’s love for Zomi never wavers, even as she loves her husband deeply. It is a beautiful part of the story and never feels forced. As mentioned, some of the book is brutal, graphic, and violent, but necessary to show what happens with an occupying force. The ending was perfect, and truly beautiful. I will only say that yes, I cried, not just teary-eyed, but really cried. I highly recommend not only Speaking Bones, but the entire Dandelion Dynasty Series.
Book Blurb (from Goodreads)
Stalked by foes and dogged by betrayal, Princess Théra is pursued across a continent vaster than she could ever have imagined, to the hidden valleys of the World’s Edge Mountains, into the barrows and subterranean halls of the City of Ghosts, across the ice floes of the far north. She breached the Wall of Storms intent on taking war to the Lyucu homelands, but how do you conquer the unconquerable?
Empress Jia, Prince Phyro, and Pékyu Tanvanaki find themselves bound to paths they never would have chosen. Amid atrocity and subterfuge, they will discover that the Courage of Brutes is no substitute for the Grace of Kings, and that little separates the Grace of Kings from the Madness of Tyrants.
On both sides of the Wall of Storms, defeat’s bitter tears mix with the fruits of knowledge new and ancient as two empires bound by blood and bone, by writ and iron, by time and custom, face a whirlwind that threatens to utterly consume them.
The teeth, as they say, are on the board.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ken Liu is an award-winning American author of speculative fiction. His collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, has been published in more than a dozen languages. Liu’s other works include The Grace of Kings, The Wall of Storms, The Veiled Throne, and a second collection The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. He has been involved in multiple media adaptations of his work including the short story “Good Hunting,” adapted as an episode in Netflix’s animated series Love, Death + Robots; and AMC’s Pantheon, adapted from an interconnected series of short stories. “The Hidden Girl,” “The Message,” and “The Cleaners” have also been optioned for development. Liu previously worked as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. He frequently speaks at conferences and universities on topics including futurism, cryptocurrency, the history of technology, and the value of storytelling. Liu lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.