Genres: Fantasy, High Fantasy
Representation: Biracial MC, cast of colour
Published on: 5th August 2021
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 . . .
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~every culture has its own magic
~don’t let them see your scars
~empires are always bad
~magic has rules for a reason
I don’t think Hand of the Sun King is a bad book. But gods, reading it bored and frustrated me. And maybe it’s that Sun King and I just aren’t a good fit; maybe that’s all it is. But it feels like this is the exact same story I’ve read a thousand times before, without enough of an original take to be worth the bother.
Alder is the son of a Sienese (fantasy Chinese) merchant and a Nayeni mother; the Nayeni are the newest people to be conquered by the Sienese empire, and Nayen is still not fully tamed, with pockets of resistance fighting back against the Sienese overlords. Alder’s grandmother hates the Sienese and despises her daughter for having married one, and although she takes some time to teach Alder a little bit of the Nayeni culture and magic, she leaves while he’s still a child to rejoin the resistance. But Alder’s experiences with magic drive him to learn more about it, and with his grandmother gone, his only option is to excel in the Imperial Examinations and become a Hand of the Emperor, one of the few who have access to and are taught the Empire’s magic.
And it’s all just… I just didn’t care. Objectively, Hand of the Sun King is perfectly decent; the prose isn’t beautiful, but it’s very readable; Alder isn’t a very likable character to begin with, but the first-person perspective was definitely a good choice and his character growth is great; Greathouse plays with themes of colonialism and empire and race, and I didn’t notice any missteps there.
But it was all just so predictable. I could see each twist coming from a mile away, and it’s a running joke in my friends group that I’m someone who never sees the twist coming. Hand of the Sun King follows the path of a thousand other coming-of-age stories, and although the revelations about the nature of magic in the final pages were kind of interesting, nothing else really was. I definitely didn’t think those revelations were worth the effort of reading the three hundred pages leading up to them. There isn’t even any nuance to the colonialist themes, or the nature of the Sienese empire; the empire is just bad, and it’s bad for everyone, and obviously there’s a magical conspiracy at the heart of it, wow look how much I do not care. Obviously Alder turns on the empire in the end; obviously the catalyst for this is also a love interest; obviously Alder is given a magical mentor at the end who teaches him The Secrets Of Everything. None of it was surprising, and the occasional cinematic moment with magic, or poignant scene involving his heritage, couldn’t make up for that.
Other reviewers have raved about the worldbuilding; I really don’t think it was all that special. We see three cultures throughout the book; the Sienese empire, Nayen, and An-Zabat, an oasis city in a desert. Sien is very clearly fantasy!China, so I refuse to give worldbuilding points for a culture the author copied rather than created from the ground up; and Nayen and An-Zabat were really only sketched out, not filled in in intricate detail. The magic systems individually weren’t that interesting, complex, or original – the magic of An-Zabat’s windcalling was probably the best, and we barely got to see that.
And good gods, talk about a scarcity of female characters! I am sick and tired of patriarchal empire stories. Another review of this book also mourned the lack of female characters, but with something along the lines of ‘the Sienese empire is just Like That, so it’s understandable’. Sorry, but the Sienese empire is fictional. It’s Like That because Greathouse wrote it that way. Alder never understands the strength of his mother, who remade herself into a feminine and submissive wife in complete contrast to her Nayeni upbringing; he sees this as something shameful when he finally remembers to consider his mother as a person. We get a small handful of warrior-women in Nayen and An-Zabat, but they all have extremely small roles, including Alder’s grandmother. His realisation that the empire is truly messed up happens when he falls in love with a woman – a windcaller – of An-Zabat, which happens almost at once and without any real emotional depth to the relationship, and it’s just so cliched and tired. Presumably the next book, which will most likely be set fully in gender-equal Nayen, will feature more women, but I’m not sticking around to wait for it.
The Hand of the Sun King isn’t outright bad, but it is bland; an Asian-inspired rather than Western-Europe inspired setting is not enough to save it. There are some interesting reveals about the nature of magic at the very end, but they’re not worth the slog through the rest of the book. Alder undergoes impressive character growth, but again, you have to make it through roughly half the book before he starts to develop into not-an-arse. The empire is evil without nuance. The prose is fine but nothing special. The last chunk of the book had me so bored and frustrated, despite the cinematic showdowns and big reveals, that I actually developed a migraine, which is the first time a book has ever done that to me.
I think that’s as clear as it gets: The Hand of the Sun King is not for me.