Book Reviews, Fantasy

Review: The Hand of the Sun King by J.T. Greathouse

My name is Wen Alder. My name is Foolish Cur.

All my life, I have been torn between two legacies: that of my father, whose roots trace back to the right hand of the Emperor. That of my mother’s family, who reject the oppressive Empire and embrace the resistance. I can choose between them – between protecting my family, or protecting my people – or I can search out a better path . . . a magical path, filled with secrets, unbound by empire or resistance, which could shake my world to its very foundation. But my search for freedom will entangle me in a war between the gods themselves . . .

Thank you to NetGalley and Gollancz for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Hand of the Sun King is set in a fantasy world in which the great Sienese Empire is slowly conquering its neighbours, and the eternal Emperor takes the magic of the conquered lands and incorporates it into his canon, which he allows his Hands and Voices -trained mages- to tap into. Wen Alder, son of a Sienese merchant and a Nayeni woman, has been preparing his entire life to take the Imperial Exams, for the chance to rank highly and learn the canon of magic. The world building draws a lot from the Eastern cultures of our world, particularly Chinese elements when it comes to the Sienese empire, and I appreciated the way the familiar and the fantastical blended together to create this compelling story of colonies, free choice, and those caught between it all.

‘The two competing branches of my family – to which, I felt, I owed an equal duty – could not be reconciled. To serve one would be to betray the other.’

In many ways, this book is a coming of age, and the narrative structure reminded me very much of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, with Alder telling the story of his life, from the first time he sees his Nayeni grandmother perform witch magic and his desire to attain that power pushes him onwards to his magical education and travels through the Empire. Alder’s story begins the night his grandmother takes him to the old Temple of the Flame and gives him a naming mark, divining his Nayeni name: Foolish Cur. From then on, he sneaks out every night to learn of the culture, language, fighting techniques and, finally, magic of his mother’s people. When Alder reaches for magic, he feels its infinite power and the flow of the universe, but his grandmother gives him his witch marks, confining his magic and cutting off that awareness.

On the other side of that, Alder’s Sienese father has high hopes that his only son will succeed in the Imperial Examinations and place their family higher in society, and through this Alder sees a way to learn the Emperor’s magic, which might bring him closer to that first feeling he experienced. In this way we follow Alder as he becomes an apprentice Hand to the Emperor, and struggles to keep the balance between his Nayeni roots and his Sienese education, especially when he comes face to face with the conflict between the two during a fight with the rebels of Nayen. Determined to find a third path and escape the choice between his loyalties, Alder sets out to the West, hoping to gain answers in An-Zabat, another colony of the Empire.

J.T. Greathouse is a phenomenal writer, balancing the slow moments of his main character’s childhood with bursts of action as he comes into moments of conflict, all slowly building towards the moment in which Alder’s internal conflict comes to a head. He captures perfectly the feeling of being torn between to identities, and it was a joy to get to know Wen Alder and Foolish Cur as they searched for the truth of the world. The language is at times blunt and at times beautifully poetic, and the two entwine perfectly to create sentences that hit right to the heart – I made a note of many as I read the book! Though there were a few moments that, in the reading, felt a bit monotonous, the whole would not exist without them, and I raced through the second half of this story, and eagerly await the next segment of Alder’s journey! A brilliant debut on a grand scale, and definitely an author to watch out for.

‘My name is Foolish Cur, grandson of Broken Limb, nephew of Harrow Fox, known to the Sienese as Wen Alder. You may have heard of me.’

Book Info

Published: 5th August 2021 by Gollancz
Genre: fantasy
Pages: 410
Series: Pact & Pattern, book one
Narration style: first person past tense
Format read: eARC
Content Warnings: mutilation/branding, death, oppression, torture, violence.

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