THE GARDEN OF EMPIRE by J. T. Greathouse (BOOK REVIEW)
Please note this review will contain spoilers for The Hand of the Sun King.
“She remembers the corpses with the clarity of a pool filled only by the rain. Their blood soaking the hide floors, the earth beneath. Bones and meat displayed as by a butcher. Shanks and legs. Tongues. Heads, their eyes still staring, their faces swollen and putrid and all but unrecognisable.
But they had been the tents of her people, painted with their
The Garden of Empire by J. T. Greathouse is the outstanding sequel to one of my favourite debuts of last year, The Hand of the Sun King. Broader in scope, seeped in electrifying magic and topped with a heart stopping finale, this is a sequel not to be missed.
Throughout the first instalment we journey through a coming of age tale which sees our main protagonist, Wen Alder, of half Nayeni and half Sienese descent, walk a precarious line within the Sienese Empire, desperately seeking magic that would free him once and for all. Now, our Wen has become his Nayeni namesake, Foolish Cur. Branded an imperial traitor; he joins his uncle, Harrow Fox, and grandmother in the rebellion against the Sienese, in a war to liberate the Nayeni people. As Emperor Tenet tightens his grip upon the Sienese empire, Harrow Fox and his Nayeni rebels plot their next strike. Wen Alder once defeated the Sienese with magic that was beyond the Emperor’s control, he is therefore the Nayeni’s greatest weapon, but tensions are high as Harrow Fox cannot trust his nephew who once served the Emperor himself.
However, Wen Alder is aware of a bigger threat, one that will cause the end of the world. The Emperor plots to break the ancient pact between Witches and Gods provoking the Gods into bringing their wrath and destruction upon the entire Empire. Wen must find a way to stop him, to prevent an apocalypse, even if that means using ancient magic which might also ire the Gods. But every war has its costs, and its sacrifices.
Once again Greathouse’s prose is atmospheric, beautifully descriptive and crafted with a true love for storytelling. I would like to thank him for beginning The Garden of Empire with a summary of the first book, told by Wen Alder, which was not only extremely useful but it also fitted perfectly into the story. After all, the first book is written as an intimate account of Wen’s life, therefore it felt natural for him to recount the events which led him to joining the rebellion. Wen also informs us that this will no longer be his story alone. Greathouse incorporates additional POV’s of characters from across the empire, those being Ral Ans Urrera, Koro Ha and Hand Pinion. Although this came as a surprise, I actually felt it was the best choice as Wen Alder’s actions had consequences which rippled throughout the empire, therefore by having these POVs we could see the effects in greater detail. However, having the story spread across the empire did leave me wanting a map to better visualise how far apart our characters were, but this is a personal preference as I always love a good fantasy map.
Wen Alder now treads an even more dangerous path, caught between wanting desperately to be accepted by his Nayeni family, particularly his uncle Harrow Fox, and letting go of his former relations with the Sienese army. On both fronts he faces difficulties, the Nayeni do not trust him, and the Sienese hate him for his betrayal. Yet ultimately Wen desires peace, for all of Nayen. I love Wen’s character, the way he weighs every decision he makes, how each life he takes or each person who dies because of him plays upon his mind be they Nayeni or Sienese. He may be morally grey in many aspects but underneath he is a character who truly cares. He wants to prevent the destruction of Nayen, he longs for the liberation of the Nayeni people but not for it to be replaced by the oppression of the Sienese. He is very much a pawn being used by higher beings and I felt much sympathy for him.
“Does this seem right?
Right would be a life of poetry, of art, and of some simple work that left him with just enough wealth to be generous with his friends. No flashing swords. No screaming children or howling mothers. No cities condemned by the failure of an ill-planned trap.”
In Toa Alon, Wen’s former tutor Koro Ha faces a similar dilemma as he is also caught between two conflicting cultures. When Koro Ha is mysteriously tasked with teaching a selection of Toa Aloni students in the hopes of raising a generation of scholarly citizens of Toa Alon, he accepts, though cautiously, as this will lead him back to the country of his birth and where his family still reside. Koro Ha wishes to make the Nayeni people, as he did with Wen Alder, into people of higher status becoming the Emperor’s Hands and Voices, so that they may be treated as equal to the Sienese rather than merely oppressed under Sienese rulers. Though this causes much conflict between his family, particularly his father and brother-in-law who wish for Toa Aloni culture and their way of life to be fully restored. I found Koro Ha’s narrative extremely compelling because Greathouse poses a fascinating debate, is it enough to have Nayeni people highly educated and living in peace in accordance with the Sienese doctrine, or is it more important that the Toa Aloni people work towards their culture, magic and freedom being re-established? As the narrative dives deeper we learn how beautiful the Toa Aloni culture is; their wonderful stories, elegant scripture, their architecture and their stonespeakers who use extraordinary magic, Koro Ha begins to realise the tragic loss as the invaders made their practices illegal. As news of Wen’s betrayal reaches Toa Alon, it casts much doubt upon Koro Ha’s teaching and eventually forces him into hiding. He had spent much of his life teaching the Sienese doctrine, believing it was the right path for a peaceful future but now faced with the Empire’s oppressive regime, he realises the significance of his own heritage. I absolutely loved this narrative arc.
On the other hand, the addition of a POV by Hand Pinion gave us much insight into the plans of the Sienese. Hand Pinion is a character seething with hatred for Wen, perhaps rightfully so as Wen did betray him and played a role in the death of his brother, Oriole. Even so, his character was hard to feel compassion for as for much of the novel his perspective is so blinded. Though upon seeing the Emperor’s wrongdoing, the unnecessary slaughter of their own people, Hand Pinion shows his displeasure which I thought was a fascinating turning point for his character. Though he is then caught in a tangled web, as his hatred for Wen compels him to do as the Emperor bids in order to carry out his revenge for the death of his brother.
That is the intricate beauty of The Garden of Empire. Greathouse poses many philosophical ideas where each character’s morals and ideology are put to the test and we see exactly how war shapes them. Not only does Greathouse delve deeper into his characters, he also expands upon the magic system which became one of my favourite aspects of the novel. If you know me, you’ll know I love my complex magic systems. Firstly we meet Ral Ans Urrera, a stormrider who is uninhabited by the pact and can wield wild and fierce magic. Her rage is warranted mind you as her people are all but annihilated, but her interludes gave me so much tension as we see the great threat she poses to the pact. As does Wen Alder, who begins to discover more about the canon of sorcery from his mentor Hissing Cat, and more about the pact from Okara the wolf God, and then pushes further into the creation of sorcery itself. He is able to not only improve on his skills of veering (I absolutely loved this ability), healing, shielding and battle magic but he seeks to pass on his skills and create new Nayeni witches. Again, given the limitations of the pact, Wen also plays a very dangerous game. This all leads to a breathtaking final act which I found epic in every way.
“‘Why is it that, for all your power, for all you wrested away from the
gods, you witches of the old sort left the world so broken?’
This isn’t a thing of the pattern, Cur, Hissing Cat said, her
voice sharp. This is a thing of human will.’”
The last few chapters of The Garden of Empire are extremely moreish, and delivered many thrilling surprises. Greathouse sweeps his readers into an intricate tale of Gods and Witches, of rebellion and liberation, of wild magic and morally grey characters, and leaves us wanting more. I cannot wait to see how this story will conclude in the third and final book.
Review copy provided by Jenna and Javerya at Gollancz. Thank you both!
The Garden of Empire is out now.