Okay, so the rundown is as follows. Chung Kuo is a future history on an epic, operatic scale. The book traces the start of the "War of Two Directions", a conflict between the Confucianist stasis of the ruling Chinese empire and the upper-class Europeans who wish for progress, change, and to take back their birthright. The book features a huge cast of characters and a scope that, for the first book in a seven-book series, shows remarkable restraint and control while still spanning slightly over a decade in time.
The good points are that it takes next to no time at all to get off the ground and manages to cover the massive amount of territory despite a small lull in the action after the prologue, that it follows a huge cast of complex characters without ever once feeling like it's repeating itself or reusing characters, and that it keeps up a level of tension without having to resort too much to excessive vulgarity. It also keeps just enough uncertainty in the plot to make it interesting. The good guys are never on the verge of winning, and neither are the bad guys. And both sides are complex enough not to be "good" or "bad", but to be driven by their own motivations. Except one.
The bad parts are an ending that seems to arbitrarily set up the cliffhanger for the next book just so one side doesn't seem to be in too much of a position of strength, and a single character, Major Howard deVore. de Vore seems to be an unrepentant monster, manipulating both sides of the conflict for little more than his own gratification. He appears to derive pleasure from human suffering and sick power games, and thus stands out against the rest of the cast. Also, there are two or three scenes that get really brutal and nasty, so I feel like I should warn that they're there.
More, as always, below.
"I want change. Of any kind." - Edmund Wyatt
Grand-scale genre novels are a thing of rare beauty. While there are a lot of attempts to make big sagas, and it seems like just about every fantasy and sci-fi novel out there is part of a trilogy or a seven-book cycle or just can't seem to end no matter how spiteful and pointless it gets*, very few of them get it right. Barker's The Books of the Art, for example, fall apart once they get to the second book. And I've heard the same argument about Dune. There are a few truly grand-scale operatic fantasies and science fiction novels, but these are for the most part the exceptions and not actually the rule. It takes a lot of consistent worldbuilding, compelling characters, and attention to detail and history to get a series off the ground, and to get it to the point where it could very well be a classic is nigh-unfathomable. And while there are a few who aspire to epic status, at the same time, they don't reach the same grand, sweeping, operatic heights that they aspire to.
Which brings us to Chung Kuo: The Middle Kingdom. I actually found this book years ago when my father had it in paperback. He wouldn't let me read it, and didn't think much of it, and really the only reason I was interested in it was because I was going through a phase of asiaphilia and I thought the little full-color insert showing a wizened emperor on a futuristic throne looked "cool". It wasn't until years later that I learned it was the first book of an entire series, and that various libraries around the county very possibly had a full set of the things between them. But, since none seemed to have the first volume, and my dad got rid of his copy around the time I ripped the insert out so I could tape it to my wall, I was out of luck.
On my way through Santa Fe with a friend of mine once, though, I stopped at a local bookstore to use the bathroom, and found a hardcover copy of Middle Kingdom. While I tried reading it, there were also sixty or seventy other things going on, and at the time, reading a complex future-historical epic wasn't really one of them. Also, I got confused by the opening chapters, and felt like it seemed to stop everything dead. So the book languished on my shelf, through water damage and three separate moves to three separate houses, until finally I saw it there and realized that while it had remained on my shelf for about six years and a month, I hadn't read it once.
That is, until I decided that I'd start my hiatus off by reading it on the train to Virginia last month, as the length was more than perfect for the long train ride.
And it is brilliant.
Chung Kuo: The Middle Kingdom is the story of a future earth. After massive wars, China forms an imperialistic structure that now controls the entire planet, under the watchful gaze of seven T'angs, or kings, one for each continent. The people of each continent (save for a few exceptions) live in huge, tiered pyramid-shaped cities that are entirely self-contained. Below the Cities are the Net, an area of corruption and criminal excess similar to the average cyberpunk dystopia; and the Clay, an anarcho-primitive culture of savages that live in the darkness below the city, locked in brutal inter-tribal squabbling. Most of the book takes place in and around City Europe, ruled over by the oldest and most seasoned of the T'angs, Li Shai Tung. The world has settled into a sort of uneasy stasis. Yes, things may be moving towards instability as the population continues to rise, but everything is stable. Planned.
Until, of course, a group of top-tier European businessmen-- Pietr Lehmann, Edmund Wyatt, and Soren Berdichev-- decide that they need to bring about change and "take back their destinies". They form a faction known as the "Dispersionists" and promptly ascend to power in the house of representatives to directly oppose the T'angs and their doctrine of static governance.
And then things get nasty. But not particularly weird.
One of City Europe's chief ministers gets assassinated in a raid directed by Lehmann and the Dispersionist mole in the security forces, Howard de Vore. This starts a rather complicated political battle fought with assassinations, arrests, and flagrant disregard for both laws and human life. Allied against the Dispersionists and their monstrous servant/puppetmaster are Li Shai Tung, his general Knut Tolonen, and various ministers. But in the background of this conflict, a young man from The Clay finds his way into the upper levels and appears to pick up a talent for engineering. The assassins decide they're going to play a dangerous game of their own by blackmailing de Vore and Lehmann. The son of the T'ang's chief minister finds a dangerous secret about his family. And all of it seems to be spiraling, despite the best efforts of Li Shai Tung and General Tolonen, towards open warfare between this and other factions. It's the last thing they want. But it may be the only way.
First, the characters are amazing. Wingrove gives the main cast some very strong motivations, from Li Shai Tung's desire to move against his Dispersionist enemies but also keep the peace to Edmund Wyatt's occasional misgivings that he and his friends are doing the right thing. The supporting cast gets an equally complex coat of paint, in particular Chen, one of the two hired knives sent to assassinate the minister. My favorite, and the kind of stand-out here is General Tolonen, who spends part of the book as an old soldier, but shows that if he wishes, he's as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than anyone else he has to contend with. Wingrove just lets his characters be, and their motivations occur organically enough. The one outlier in this group is Howard de Vore**, but he seems to be more of a force for the other characters to rotate around and react to, than just a character. And, overall, that's the thing. The characters may all react to the force driving them, but they react organically enough it makes sense.
Second, the plotting is really dense and intricate, but never seems particularly hard to follow. This is most obvious in the way the plot can be described, but even in the above description, I just touched the surface of what goes on in the book. Explaining it all, even without spoilers, would take a lot of backgrounding and context I can't even begin to get into in the review (it's long enough as is), but it makes perfect sense from beginning to end. And this is what sets The Middle Kingdom apart from most of the books in the field that attempt epic status. While the plot can get complex, certainly, and is plenty dense, it is never particularly knotty in the sense that it's fairly easy to get from point A to point B.
And third, the worldbuilding is a thing to be praised. While The Bone Season had it all in expository dialogue, Wingrove lets the aesthetic work entirely for itself. He describes the structures in intricate detail, describes what people are wearing, and generally lets the world speak for itself. He also tends to show much more than tell, and even in a non-visual medium, this technique works incredibly well for him. You get a sense of City Europe and its orbital platform, from the treacherous terrain outside the city's walls to the brilliant tiers and digital sky of the city proper. It also leaves just enough to make people wonder and question what more there is, allowing them to dig deeper. This is another good feature. Worldbuilding should leave something up for chance, and this does. It leaves blanks to fill in with later volumes, and hopefully Wingrove does.
But there are some issues with this overall. For one thing, while there is a lot of energy, the pacing is definitely off. The pacing is set with the prologue, but then dives for a moment, releasing a lot of the built-up tension to have two new characters, different from the ones previously introduced, mess about in a wasteland for a few pages. While the pacing picks up again and these two characters do something pivotal, it does stop the book for a little bit. Also, I have issues with the ending, which causes just enough uncertainty and creates loose ends in the last chapter to lead into the next book. There's several quick victories pulled out of nowhere, and they don't feel natural
But all of this aside, Chung Kuo: The Middle Kingdom is a classic and a permanent part of my collection. It's exciting, suspenseful, dense, complex, and when it comes right down to it, very well put together. Buy this, or if you can't buy this, get it out of the library. I'm looking forward to the rest of the book series immensely.
-Imajica by Clive Barker
- Possibly some short story/novella reviews
- IT by Stephen King
- Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
*Not naming any names.
** I would just like to take a moment to say that I know a total of zero decent human beings with de Vore as a last name.