THE HAND OF THE SUN KING by J. T. Greathouse (BOOK REVIEW)
“Magic could reshape the world. Its power was undeniable. It needed no argument to bolster it, nor any faith to make it true.”
The Hand of the Sun King by J.T. Greathouse is the first instalment in The Pact and the Pattern trilogy. This is a novel which first caught my eye ever since we hosted the cover reveal back in February when I became mesmerised by the hand on the cover with all its intricate patterns and hidden details. Patrick Knowles’ design certainly piqued my interest, and I needed to know precisely what this story was all about.
Last year my favourite debut was The Councillor by E.J. Beaton which was a novel with vivid worldbuilding and beautiful prose, and much for the same reasons, The Hand of the Sun King is my favourite debut of 2021 so far. It is such an exquisite debut, Greathouse’s characterisation, his prose, and worldbuilding are an absolute triumph.
The story follows Wen Alder, a young boy who is caught between the two conflicting sides of his Sienese heritage and his Nayeni one. His father, a Sienese merchant whose ancestors date back to the right hand of the Emperor himself, wants Alder to restore their former wealth and prestige. However, his Nayeni grandmother wishes for Alder to join her in the rebellion against the Sienese empire who have conquered and are striving to eradicate any culture and religion which isn’t theirs. Yet our Alder seeks a different future, one which will allow him the freedom to choose his own path.
In the opening chapters we immediately see how Alder is pulled in these two directions: after his grandmother performs a secret ritual to discover his Nayeni name, Foolish Cur, she then begins to teach him her magic, but after an almost fatal start, she quickly marks his palm to seal the amount of power he can use. To Alder’s dismay he isn’t satisfied with the mere trickle of power he is now left with and an obsession with magic sparks. After his grandmother leaves, he realises the only way to regain a higher measure of magical power is to become Hand of the Emperor, whereby he will learn the ways of the Pattern and access the canon. To achieve this, and much to his father’s delight, Alder has to pass the Imperial Examinations and subsequently become a servant of the empire.
The Hand of the Sun King is written in a first person narration, as we delve into a coming of age fantasy, where we witness Alder grow from a young petulant, naive boy, who makes many mistakes, into a man who begins to truly understand the world around him. In Alder‘s pursuit of magic, he often becomes blinded by a single vision where he thinks only of himself; his compulsion for a sense of freedom leads him to be ignorant of the devastating wake the Empire is leaving upon the lands and people of his home. The Sienese have oppressed every race they come upon, and though Alder is vaguely aware of this, early on in the novel he still falls into doing as the empire bids him. Yet despite his faults he is a very believable character. His obsessions, frustrations and his stubbornness is understandable. However, as the novel progresses ultimately Alder is shaped by the journey that the empire sets him upon, and it is the people he meets along the way who open his eyes. In true coming-of-age fashion we see Alder experience love, friendship, and loss. There is a beautiful portrayal of his relationship with his grandmother, Broken Limb, a strained and difficult relationship with his mother and father, and then when he finally makes a friend in Oriole, and becomes close to his mentors such as Koro-Ha, Usher, and even Hissing Cat, we see that these are the people who impact his character, for better or worse. I also mustn’t forget to mention Atar, who arguably shapes him the most, but also provided some of my most favourite scenes.
“Some moments fix themselves in memory, to be recalled again and again throughout our lives. A breath of lavender perfume will always conjure my first deep romantic feeling, the thunderclap roar and burned-stone scent of chemical grenades my first true hardship. The night my grandmother named me, the night I first attempted to veer, and the night she carved me with witch marks were moments.”
We also get a few tropes such as a magic school, along with bullies and the loneliness that comes with being an outcast. Many attribute tropes with negative connotations, however I’m the opposite, I love so many tropes, especially when they are used in fascinating ways, as is the case here. For example Greathouse uses the magical school trope to explore the notion of privilege within the Sienese race, who see themselves as superior as they are ruled by the emperor, and therefore education is a given. Whereas those who are born a different race, and are poorer, are left to struggle. In fact what sets this book apart from other high-fantasy novels is that education is given much precedence and is explored in intricate detail. We spend several chapters with Alder as he is taught not only magic, but also calligraphy, politics, economy and several languages. Although learning comes easy to Alder, in areas such as battle tactics he falters and realises he has his weaknesses, and so he has to learn that asking help from others is not a shameful act. He also has to learn that those who are not as educated as himself are no less worthy.
Two of my absolute favourite aspects of this novel were the superb prose, and the phenomenal worldbuilding. Greathouse’s prose is atmospheric, poetic and so richly detailed that the world leaps from the page and inhales you whole. Alder’s narrative voice seamlessly fits his character as his education tailors him into a well cultured protagonist, and therefore his perceptions of the world are seen through a scholarly and artistic eye. I found that every descriptive scene hits your senses; smells, visuals and sounds are portrayed so vividly you get a fully rounded picture of every place Alder visits.
This is an Asian inspired world and you can observe that right from the beginning just by the details of the culture of the Sienese and the Nayeni. I also saw elements of Indian and Middle Eastern cultures which I found was such a fantastic blend. Every city and nationality all had their own ways of life, their own gods, religious beliefs, and cultural traditions, adding a wonderful multitude of layers to the world, which again made it come alive right before your eyes. Greathouse most certainly writes with much finesse.
We also see Greathouse explore the concept of colonialism, for example through the lands of Nayen and An-Zabat. They are both enchanting places, full of lavish culture and a deeply rooted mythical history. The wonders of the obelisks found in An-Zabat and the amazing bazaar showed the city to have an array of good fortune, wealth, foods and luxuries. There was even a celebration of dancing, which we watched Atar entice Alder to take part in, and I can’t think of any other way to describe those scenes other than beautiful. Yet, as Atar leads Alder away from the bazaar, we are shown that even in a place as dazzling as An-Zabat, the aftermath of the Imperial empire’s war has left its mark, even if they haven’t fully taken control yet. Poverty, starvation and suffering affect the population, and we, along with Alder, poignantly see the Emperor’s rule is not for the betterment of the native people.
“There was a horrible justice in these warriors circling each other without end, meting out petty wounds, slowly bleeding each other dry, but always failing to deal a killing blow. If only they could do battle alone, isolated from the pattern of the world. Somewhere that their war would not leave towns besieged and starving. Where romantic tales of war long past could never trick the young into seeking glory, only to drag them down into death.”
Although I’ve briefly touched upon the magic system it is worth noting that it goes into a lot more detail than what I’ve briefly outlined. The Pact and the Pattern holds many layers to the way it works, and the way that different people could harness the Patterns to wield different powers. For example as Alder becomes attuned to elemental magic, he notices how it always leaves a smell of cinnamon, and how he can even trace the patterns of magic. I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about the concept of the canon, of the Emperor’s Voice’s and Hand’s, and discovering just how deeply his corruption ran. There’s also a sub plot of meddling Gods, who use people as pawns with their own purpose in mind. All these aspects slowly build up throughout the course of the narrative, until Greathouse delivers a stunning conclusion where he brings all these threads together.
Greathouse gives us an array of magical abilities, and writes them with such luscious details, they feel as though they could really be achieved. I would say Greathouse’s magic system is as unique as any you would find in a Brandon Sanderson novel and is just as well written.
The Hand of the Sun King fundamentally explores the right to make our own choices in life, to make sacrifices to serve the greater good and to use power to uplift the oppressed. Greathouse delivers a debut full of complexities, passion and grace, and I’m already longing for more.
“As life gives way to death, as winter to summer, so brutality would produce rebellion long after the cultures of Nayen, An-Zabat and the other conquered lands had been forgotten. Such was the ebb and flow of the pattern of the world.”
ARC provided by Will at Gollancz. Thank you for the copy! All quotes used are taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
The Hand of the Sun King is out 5th August but you can pre-order HERE.