I just finished Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, which came out last year. It has been on my radar for sometime, but I've had so many bad experiences reading "Fantasy China" books that I was a bit reluctant to pick it up. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I'm glad I checked it out.
Grace of Kings isn't quite fantasy china. It is definitely inspired by Chinese history and classic Chinese novels like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but the setting is not a simple analog. One glance at a map of the Islands of Dara (the setting where the book takes place) makes this pretty clear. It is basically a large series of islands. Also the people are pretty diverse. Some have blonde hair, others red or brown, one group is described as black skinned, etc. It leaves the specifics a bit ambiguous (often-times just pointing out hair color). But what this makes clear is the reader can imagine characters appearing any number of ways. Ultimately what matters in the setting is the culture people belong to.
I quite enjoyed the world building aspect to the book. In particular I loved the technology and how we get to experience it through the eyes of a great inventor, Luan Zya (who is a kind of Su Song-type). I don't want to spoil anything for people who haven't read it yet, so I will just say there are airships and war kites. Those appear quite early in the book, some of the other technology is seen later. Ken Liu introduces it slowly, so you are not overwhelmed with setting details all at once.
The book is basically the story of rise of two characters, Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu. Told against the backdrop of warring kingdoms it is both epic and mythic, but also character focused. A character like Mata Zyndu seems like something pulled right out of legend, cleaving his way across the battlefield with a sword named Ender of Doubts in one hand and a flesh rending cudgel named Goremaw in the other. Eight feet tall, he towers above the other characters. But the really interesting parts happen away from the battle field, where we learn more about Mata Zyndu's heart, or about the Kuni Garu's complex relationships. Kuni Garu is more subtle than Mata, and more of a normal person, but I have to admit, Mata was my favorite.
While the focus is on Mata and Kuni, the cast is pretty big. Despite being a sizable book with a lot of characters, it isn't as overwhelming as similar books I've read. I never felt swamped by the names or like I was trudging through a heavy tome. I just wanted to know what my favorite characters were going to do next. I was interested from beginning to end, and for me that is the measure of a good book.
Grace of Kings is part of a series called the Dandelion Dynasty, and I am looking forward to the next book. The ending seems like a great set-up for an even more interesting tale of palace and political intrigue.
I definitely think this is worth checking out if you like fantasy and have an interest in Chinese history. Though I also think it has broader appeal as well.