Kirkus Interview with Ken Liu of ‘The Grace of Kings’

Kirkus Reviews did an interview with author Ken Liu earlier this year, in which he shares good thoughts about writing and his novel The Grace of Kings.

I wouldn’t consider myself a very fast writer. Almost every other writer I know can draft and revise faster. I have found, however, that the solution to almost any kind of temporary setback in a writing career is to write more, and keeping that in mind has allowed me to keep on writing even when I was not feeling “on.”

The Grace of Kings is your first novel. What are the main differences between writing short fiction vs. long fiction, either in how you envision the story or its construction? 

I think on the practical side, there’s a lot more bookkeeping that must be done with novels: dates, plot points, character traits, worldbuilding details, etc. And decisions you make early on can have consequences hundreds of pages and months or years later. Since I’m not a natural planner when it comes to writing, I’ve had to learn to use various technologies like wikis and timelines to keep all this stuff straight. I suppose in a sense, writing a novel is a lot more like architecture while short fiction feels more like sculpting.

He goes on to describe his use of “silkpunk,” which is “a blend of fantasy and technology inspired by prototypes from East Asian antiquity.”

Gone a-Viking, again

Midwest Viking Festival

I refuse to say I’ll be “out of pocket” for the rest of the week. I dislike that turn of speech; it makes no sense to me. “Out of pocket” is a term having to do with spending money.

Anyway, I’ll be away for the next few days. I’ll be participating in the Midwest Viking Festival at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, Minnesota. The Hjemkomst Center is a museum devoted to preserving a replica Viking ship which was built beginning in the 1970s and sailed to Norway in the early ‘80s. Its chief builder was a regular guy named Bob Asp, who sadly died before the launch. There’s also a lovely replica stave church.

I’ve been to the Hjemkomst Center before, but this will be my first time at this particular event. It will probably be the largest Viking event I’ve ever attended. There’ll be a few friends and acquaintances there, so I won’t be wholly on my own in a sea of strangers, though. I’ll have some books to sell. Drop in if you’re in the neighborhood.

I just finished loading my car, and was amazed at how easy it was without hip pain. It’s like growing ten years younger all of a sudden. It occurs to me that I must be kind of tough. I’ve been playing hurt for more than two years.

‘A Mint Condition Corpse,’ by Duncan MacMaster

A Mint Condition Corpse

I’ll confess I picked this book up because I like the author’s blog. Duncan MacMaster is the proprietor of The Furious D Show, an excellent movie blog. In spite of the handicap of being Canadian, MacMaster writes with authority and wit on the business of Hollywood (though, like so many blogmeisters, he’s been posting less and less lately). But the more I read A Mint Condition Corpse, the more I liked it for its own sake, and the more fun I had.

MacMaster’s knowledge of Hollywood provides a great background for this story, which deals with comics fandom and movie making. His hero is Kirby Baxter, a famous comic book artist who has been out of circulation for a couple years. On the same day he was fired from his job, he won the lottery. After collecting his riches, he fled to Europe. There he got involved in a couple criminal investigations, employing his expertise in reading people’s faces, which he learned from a magician uncle who did a mind reading act. His contributions to police operations earned him honorary status as an Interpol consultant, and the loyalty of a giant Czech former policeman, who became his constant, protective shadow.

Now he’s decided to reconnect with his old friends and fans. He flies to Toronto to attend Omnicon, a huge comics convention. He runs into Mitch, his diminutive, dirty-minded old buddy, and Molly, a fellow artist whom he helped get started in the business. He also meets a supermodel turned actress who has been cast in an upcoming superhero movie and is at the convention to promote it. She turns out to be every geek’s dream – she’s a fan of his work, and sends out clear signals that she’s interested in him personally.

And then there’s a murder. Employing his people reading skills, Kirby assists the police in cutting through a tangle of personal and business motives (here the author’s knowledge of the movie industry adds a lot to verisimilitude), putting his own life in danger.

In description, the plot sounds like fanboy wish-fulfillment fantasy. But what makes A Mint Condition Corpse work is the way the author brings the characters to life and laughs (in an affectionate way) at the quaint customs and mores of the subcultures represented in the story. I really liked these characters, and cared about them. The book worked for me very well.

The dialogue can get a little raunchy, especially when Mitch is talking, but it’s not bad by the standards of thriller literature. I recommend A Mint Condition Corpse, and I hope we see more of Kirby Baxter.

What Americans Claim to Read

Last week, the Library of Congress opened a new exhibit called “America Reads” to “celebrate the public’s choice of 65 books by American authors that had a profound effect on American life.”

It’s a follow-up to the 2012 exhibit “Books That Shaped America.” At that time, “the Library of Congress urged members of the public to name other books that shaped America and to tell the Library which of the 88 books on the list were most important to them. Thousands of readers responded.”

We, the people of these United States, chose books such as Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, both Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Anthem, The Book of Mormon, Stephen King’s The Stand, Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Cat in the Hat, AA’s Big Book, The Feminine Mystique, and Spock’s Baby and Child Care.

The LOC reminds us, “The volumes featured in the ‘America Reads’ exhibition do not necessarily represent the best in American letters, nor do they speak to the diversity of our nation and the books it produces.” No, but it does speak to the type of people who visit the Library of Congress and respond to reading surveys with what amounts to Boaty McBoatface without the priceless publicity.

The Big Book? Baby and Child Care? How many actual people who put on pants in the morning responded to this survey? It couldn’t be thousands, unless almost everyone picked a unique title, making the three votes for Baby and Child Care a standout choice.

The exhibit will run through the end of the year.

Film review: ‘The Last King’

I posted the trailer for the Norwegian film The Last King a little while back. You might be able to see it in a theater (I did) but if not, it’s available (I believe) on Netflix. Or will be soon.

In the 13th Century, Norway is torn by civil wars. The opposing forces are the Birkebeiners (birchlegs), devoted to the current dynasty, and the Baglers (crosiers), loyal to the church, which has placed Norway under papal ban.

The young king, Haakon Sverreson, is poisoned to death by his wicked stepmother, the queen mother. When the news gets out, loyal Birkebeiners, Skjervald and Torstein, receive Haakon’s infant son, Haakon Haakonsson, from his mother in order to carry him by ski from Lillehammer to Trondheim, to keep him out of the hands of the Baglers. Their journey becomes a perilous one, as ruthless Bagler warriors pursue them over the mountains. Meanwhile intrigue in the palace in Trondheim leads to betrayal, false imprisonment, and murder.

The Last King is a competent historical action movie. It’s not as great as it wants to be, but the fight scenes and the music are pretty good (especially the music).

Historically, the film is about at the level of Braveheart, which is to say any resemblance to actual events is mostly coincidental. The Baglers (as is the practice in most historical epics) are painted as evil incarnate, capable of any atrocity in their ruthless devotion to the pope. The actual ski journey (assuming it actually happened; historians aren’t sure) was strenuous but not nearly this dangerous. The Game of Thrones-style intrigue and betrayal at the palace is almost entirely fictional. The evil Duke Gisli of this film actually never existed – he’s a place holder for a real Duke Haakon (that name might have confused the audience), who wasn’t particularly evil at all.

Worth seeing. Netflix stuff; probably not worth driving to a theater for. Subtitled.

‘The Grace of Kings,’ by Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings

Divination was an ancient art in the Islands of Dara, but no Tiro state was more dedicated to its practice than scholarly Haan. After all, Haan was the favored land of the god Lutho, divine trickster, mathematician, and seer. The gods always spoke ambivalently, and sometimes they even changed their minds in the middle of your asking them a question. Divination was a matter of ascertaining the future through inherently unreliable methods.

It isn’t often that a book leaves me in awe. But Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings has me thunderstruck.

Imagine a book written on the general Game of Thrones model. But imagine it set in a Chinese-based world.

And imagine that in this story, courage is not always futile, and virtue is not always defiled.

That’s The Grace of Kings. An epic in every sense of the word.

In the world of Dura, the emperor of the Reign of One Bright Heaven is a cruel megalomaniac. Thousands die doing slave labor for his hubristic personal monuments. Almost by accident, a revolt breaks out and spreads. Soon to be caught up in it are Kuni Garu, a commoner, a former gambler and bandit, and Mata Zyndu, descendent of heroes, tall and strong and himself a figure out of legend.

The two men’s gifts are different. Kuni Garu is intelligent and humane, always chiefly concerned with the welfare of others. Mata Zyndu is obsessed with courage, heroism, and ideals. Their complementary virtues make them leaders and brothers. They win the war.

And then it gets messy.

This is a book that will reward re-reading. I’m not at all sure I agree with its message (assuming there is one, or only one), but the story is eminently worth wrestling with. Much blood is spilled, but it’s not heartless. It’s rich in complex characters and moral ambivalence, but it’s not amoral.

I’m overwhelmed by The Grace of Kings. I highly recommend it. Not for young children.

Who Could Oppose Us? We’re So Nice.

R.R. Reno suggests terrorism is not about hate, but political warfare. We aren’t threatened by a network of criminals or people who are psychologically unhinged; we’re threatened by a network of people who believe the American way of life is immoral and dangerous to the world. But our leaders ask themselves why the terrorists hate us.

Our leaders cannot imagine a rational anti-Americanism. This is due in part to the narrowing effect of multiculturalism. Paradoxically, instead of broadening our capacity to entertain ways of thinking not our own, multiculturalism has made us parochial. We compliment ourselves endlessly for our tolerance, inclusiveness, and diversity. Since we are so tolerant of others, we assume, there is no reason others shouldn’t tolerate us. Since we are never offended, we must be inoffensive.

Aren’t we the world? Aren’t we all on the same page, if we could just talk to each other? But if one of us has offended them, it must be those hatemongering Christians, who tell us to love Jesus and keep sex inside of marriage. If anything’s offensive, that is. (via Prufrock News)

Lessons of history

Illustration by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, TX, and Gospel Light, Ventura, CA. Copyright 1984, under Creative Commons license, CC-BY-SA 3.0

I was thinking about the Book of Esther.

You know the story – the orphan girl selected for the king’s harem, how she gained his favor and used it to reveal a plot to annihilate all the Jews in the Persian Empire. Thus saving her people.

But what particularly struck me was the means by which her people were saved.

The king’s law could not be revoked. Haman’s edict allowed anyone in the empire to kill the Jews and take their property, and that edict had to stand.

But Esther got permission for her uncle, Mordecai, to enact a counter-law:

“And he wrote in the name of King Ahasuerus… saying that the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them….”

You often hear people say, “Violence never solves anything.” It’s a stupid statement, demonstrably false. Jews, especially, ought to understand this. It wasn’t peace that saved the Jews. It was the basic human right of self-defense. The Jews of Persia weren’t frightened by their enemies – once they knew they were allowed to fight for their lives. “Just give us swords, and leave the rest to us.”

“And in every province and in every city, wherever the king’s command and his edict reached, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday.”

And the Jews have been celebrating it ever since – every Purim.

Distinguished medical care

Odd what you turn up when you’re doing research. I’ve been gathering some information for the seminary at work, and I ran across a name that tripped a memory switch. And thus I learned a little more about a chapter in my own family’s history – a Walker brush with fame. Or eminence, anyway.

When I was growing up, I often heard stories about the struggles my dad’s family endured. They suffered many shocks, both in finances and health. Dad lost a brother (born with a heart defect) and a sister (died of complications following appendix surgery). And my grandfather suffered all his life from a spinal injury he received as a young man. Through all these travails they were cared for by the family doctor, referred to with hushed respect as “Dr. Hanson.” Dr. Hanson, I was told, invented a specialized surgical tool in order to operate on Grandpa’s neck. Grandma saved a letter of condolence he wrote after the death of my aunt. Apparently he did a lot of his work for the Walkers with little payment, or at least with delayed payment. “He even,” they said, “discovered some kind of hormone.”

And it’s true. He did discover some kind of hormone. I found the record.

Dr. Adolph M. Hanson (I can’t find his biographical dates now, but as I recall he died in 1957) was the grandson of Pastor Østen Hanson, first pastor of my home parish. In 1923, he discovered the parathyroid hormone in his home laboratory in Faribault, Minn. This article tells about it.

One of these scientists was Adolph Hanson, a small-town doctor from Minnesota who conducted his experiments in a makeshift lab in the basement of his home. Hanson reported in 1923 that, using cattle parathyroid glands he had collected from a slaughterhouse, he had isolated the active compound from the parathyroids that can prevent the convulsions that occur when these glands are removed from dogs. The renowned Canadian biochemist James B. Collip independently isolated the same active extract in 1925…

My late great-aunt told me that one of her sisters had made a concerted effort to get Dr. Hanson as a husband, but he failed to succumb.

I may have even met him. I expect he would have attended Grandpa’s funeral. But I don’t remember him.

Not neutral

Over the weekend, one person I don’t approve of killed a lot of other people I don’t approve of.

That doesn’t make me happy.

The reasons for my disapproval of the groups are beside the point at a time like this. People are grieving. Real human beings have lost their lives, or been crippled or maimed for life. To talk doctrine just now would be un-Christlike.

But I’m angry nonetheless. I’m angry because further lives have been lost to the worthless, statist institution of the Gun Free Zone.

Orlando isn’t a case of equal and opposite evils. The moment any person takes it upon himself to murder defenseless people, he automatically becomes the Greater Evil. Decent people will all side against him. I hope.

Some of my Facebook friends have been posting graphics supporting a group called “Pink Pistols.” Its purpose, I gather, is to encourage members of the homosexual community to take responsibility for their own safety through arming themselves.

That’s one “gay” initiative I can support wholeheartedly.

I take it as a given that one of the threats this group was originally organized to counter was the threat of people like me. Conservative Christians. Well, you know what? If some conservative “Christian” actually decides he’s got special license from God to murder people because he disapproves of their sins, he deserves the pink bullet he’ll get for it. Let him explain to Jesus how he justifies flouting the greatest commandment for the sake of a lesser commandment.

Meanwhile, may God have mercy.

Some Churches Have Lost Their Way

How do you react to the claim that what a Christian does at church on Sunday morning is the most important thing he can do that week? I think some pastors have said this as a way of saying worshipping God is our most important act, but if that’s what they intend to say, they aren’t quite saying it. One could easily hear in such a claim that attending church that morning is the most important part of the week. Is that what worship is? Are we only able to worship the Lord in an organized service on one day or can we develop a lifestyle of worship for the whole week? Is the church’s mission to draw people into its organization or to declare the wonders of Christ Jesus?

Jared C. Wilson has experience in churches that put all of their creative energy into making the Sunday morning service exciting, unique, and attractive to the people of their city, and he believes those church leaders have lost the vision for Christ’s church on earth. The manner of the services and the theme of the sermons (or talks) point to good feelings and self-improvement. “But are they the real message of Jesus?” he asks.

Wilson’s argument in The Prodigal Church rests on his belief that what you win people with is what you win them to. “Pragmatic discipleship makes pragmatic Christians. The way the church wins its people shapes its people. So the most effective way to turn your church into a collection of consumers and customers is to treat them like that’s what they are.”

He urges church leaders to question their assumptions about what takes place in their services and programs. If their goal is make clear the claims of Christ or to help others make God of first importance in every part of their lives, then they are on mission regardless their presentation style.

You could walk away from the attractional church’s pattern of teaching and think you needed some more skills, some more enthusiasm, and some more advice, but you’d rarely walk away thinking you need more grace.

Wilson is careful not to overly criticize. He isn’t arguing for his preferred church style or saying that everyone has to agree with him on what makes for a good worship service. He admits we have different styles, but making consumerism a normal part of the American church does not lift up the name of Christ or apply his grace in healthy ways. That’s not a style choice. It’s a problem. It isn’t cultural sensitivity; it’s being co-opted by the culture.

The second part of the book offers many thoughts on how to do church well, including some stories of people who realized their manner of ministry didn’t accomplish their intentions. I heartily agree with and recommend this book.

Excerpt from The Prodigal Church by Jared C. Wilson

Many attractional churches still preach that Jesus died for our sins, of course. But too often this message of Christ’s death has become assumed, the thing you build up to rather than focus on. Or, in too many other cases, this message is treated as the “add-on” to other messages, the proposition presented at the end of a message that is more about our personal success than Christ’s personal victory.

A cognitive dissonance can result for those who hear a message all about what they should do to be more successful or victorious or happy or what-have-you, only to then hear the proposition that Jesus died for our sins. To hear a lengthy appeal to our abilities, culminating in an appeal to our utter inability, can cause spiritual whiplash.

But the appeal is easy to see. Attractional is certainly attractive. These kinds of messages, over time, communicate to seeker and believer alike that Christianity is about themselves, making the faith more about self-improvement or life enhancement—which are things we all want deep down. But are they the real message of Jesus?

— From The Prodigal Church:A Gentle Manifesto against the Status Quo, by Jared C. Wilson

Though I am in no position to challenge Wilson’s assessment here, I want to offer the suggestion that the spiritual whiplash may be negated quite a bit by presenting the gospel with a heavy emphasis on personal choice. These preachers could be summarized as saying that since Christ has done so much for our eternal lives, doesn’t it make sense to take advantage of it. Don’t you see how your life would be improved by declaring yourself a follower of Christ Jesus?

That may be a way to make converts, but it isn’t a way to make actual disciples.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture