As the second installment in Ken Liu’s “silkpunk” epic The Dandelion Dynasty, Wall of Storms continues to follow the saga of the Gara clan. This contemplative and action-packed sequel still offers the pleasurably smooth prose and semi-omniscient narrative style that evokes a seasoned storyteller spinning off another iteration of a much-loved and oft requested tale. The series is, by nature, imbued with elements of the Chinese classics; the petty squabbling immortals of The Journey to the West, the realpolitik of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the power struggles in the female sphere in Dream of the Red Chamber, the pugilist outlaw world in Water Margin. And yes, there are dragons.
Readers who are familiar with Grace of Kings, the first book of The Dandelion Dynasty, might remember that the strange but familiar world that Liu had engineered. For all it’s confusing naming conventions and Polynesian-inspired geography, had been running parallel to Early Chinese Imperial history. It may help to think that The Dandelion Dynasty is to Chinese History, specifically the Chu-Han Contention, as A Song of Ice and Fire is to the War of Roses. Thus, while it does depends on the knowledge of the reader to gauge the extent of Liu’s Chinese influences, a completely uninformed reader would still be able to access and understand the series.
Unlike the certainty we have about the fates of Kuni Garu as Liu Bang and Mata Zyndu as Xiang Yu in the first book, the next generation of characters begins to diverge from history. After Liu was criticized for his lack of diverse portrayals of women, he has consciously stepped up his game. In Wall of Storms, we are led by the brilliant, poor, disabled and queer philosopher-scientist Zomi, who becomes the heart of the novel, Zomi’s eventual ruler, lover, and lab partner Princess Thera, and Tanvanaki, a chieftain who doesn’t balk from using her sexuality and her fire-breathing dragon to win a kingdom.
In this new era, there are not only many more female characters, but there are also a complex variety of women, some of whom are consciously advocating for feminist policies, rather than settling for being the lone woman who get special privileges. The novel also portrays men furthering gender equality with policy and in their personal lives. Interestingly, while sexism remains alive, queer relationships are accepted and commonplace. In fact, the primary obstacle for the titular queer couple is actually political, rather than fear of being punished for being queer. Race was confusing in the first book, and is made even murkier by the new invading group that could represent the Mongols/Vikings/every other nation that has tried to invade China.
Wall of Storms might be considered a Chinese-American melting pot. An important part of The Dandelion Dynasty’s mythology is that Liu differentiates between the Western dragon and the Chinese conception of the creature that has been categorized in the West as a Chinese dragon. Liu’s Chinese dragon equivalent, cruebens, already played a large role in the first book. Now Liu throws another monkey wrench in by introducing Western dragons to the mix as well. In this book, elements from the Han Dynasty are equally likely to collide with allusions to American history as events from the Yuan Dynasty. These influences have been present since the first novel, such as Jia’s don’t-forget-the-womenfolk Abigail Adams letters. However in this installment, the secret Dara laboratory is a ghost of the Manhattan Project and its consequences. In addition, Zomi is also this world’s Benjamin Franklin, both of whom after being struck by lightening used a kite to experiment on electricity.
The switch to following characters like Zomi versus the mythological generals and warriors like Mata Zyndu of the last novel is reflective of a transitioning world that is beginning to look for scientific explanations. The catchphrase of the book is “Weigh the fish, the world is knowable”. Curiously, the “Patternist" school of thought that drives Liu’s central characters has no easy comparison to Chinese philosophy unlike the other schools of thought in the novel; the Moralists are Confucians, Fluxists are Taoists, and Incentivists are Legalists. Patternism, founded by the Leonardo Da Vinci-esque Na Moji, is in effect, the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution come to Imperial China several centuries early. When hard science comes to Dara, even mythological creatures are not exempt from dissection. In the new era, Liu even depicts the gods physically changing their forms to reflect a more complex morality and heightened understanding of the world.
Liu has taken a scalpel to the collective Chinese cultural-historical memory, shaping and fitting his chosen pieces to sail forward in a new form. Whereas the approach of the first novel was creating a myth, this second novel is the process of cobbling together parts of old Chinese characters to make new words, a new language to express ideas that never needed to be expressed before in Wall of Storms.