Lately, there has been no shortage of Eastern-inspired fantasy, and I doubt we’re even close to a drought. There are countless epics, wuxia, and even more personal stories. However, I personally have not encountered a lot of fiction that dives into the philosophy of eastern traditions. Luckily, J.T. Greathouse wanted to throw his western hat into the ring and add to this seemingly niche genre barely explored in either hemisphere. This next Dark Horse feels like a return to home after the many plot-heavy books I’ve read recently. The Hand of the Sun King is an enjoyable novel that pays great homage to the traditions and mythologies it borrows from while creating a delightful yet sobering tale of one man’s attempt to forge his own path between a rock and hard place.
The Hand of the Sun King is the story of Wen Alder, or as his grandmother named him, Foolish Cur. His father is a merchant of the Sienese Empire, and his mother is sibling and daughter to two of the Nayenese’s more infamous rebels. He is a man split between worlds and wishes to become the first Hand of the Emperor from the new imperial province of Nayen. Arden dedicates his early life to studying for the imperial exams so that he one day may be accepted into its vaunted magical ranks. However, he must also hide his connection to the ancient magics of Nayen. Will he succumb to the Emperor’s will, or will he turn and fight joining his Grandmother and uncle in their eternal struggle? Or maybe there is a third way, that combines the two that allows Arden to rise above it all.
First off, Wen Alder is a great character, even if he can be grating. He’s ambitious and full of himself, but also has moments of cleverness that back up his independent nature. Born of two worlds, he hopes to find a third way to avoid slipping into the violence of his grandmother’s rebellion, or the brutal assimilation perpetrated by the Sienese Empire. Time and again he finds ways to fuse the magic and philosophies of both to squeeze through the cracks, giving him an incredibly inflated sense of self. Greathouse portrays Alder’s reinforced arrogance well enough that I found myself rolling my eyes at Alder’s constant need to distance himself from the Sienese, even though he is clearly doing their dirty work, by stating his disdain for having been born into this life. It makes the lessons he learns the hard way much more powerful, and his journey much more interesting.
Greathouse builds an incredible world through the book. While he borrows heavily from the geography and traditions of Asian cultures, he adds a flair that allows the mythical traditions to blend with the philosophy explored within the book. Magic is a system of systems within the land of Sien and its many neighbors. Regions have their own special forms of magic granted to them, while the Sienese Empire has the Canon, a collection of magics supplied by the Emperor himself to his many Hands. Over time Greathouse delicately explores the history of these systems, and the Canon as they are revealed to Alder. The magic is clever and feels important to the people who practice it in a way I rarely feel in fantasy. It’s not a collection of spells that highlight who a person is on the inside through their use. Instead, the magics are related to individual cultures, giving them a complexity that builds as more is revealed. For instance, one of the novel’s western cities can call upon the wind to make their trade ships faster, while conjuring water to feed their desert oasis. It leads to a culture that allows them to shift and dance amongst the Sienese merchants, but they are constantly grounded by the fact that they have to nurture the garden that provides for them. They can’t run without destroying an essential part of who they are. The fact that the magic feels so distinctly related to the philosophy is just more bonus points.
Now, if you’re concerned about philosophy being the main course in the book, well, that’s just what it is. There are discussions about how one could live one’s life, or contribute to the empire, or rebel against it. Alder is questing to find a third way that distances himself from both of his backgrounds just so he can personally avoid violence in his ambitious search for power. What I enjoyed so immensely about Sun King was Greathouse’s ability to make all choices feel both clever and foolish simultaneously. No particular way of living stands out as the best way, and it’s through Alder’s journey that his own personal way of living is revealed. Greathouse avoids discussion traps by having these parables end in an application of Arden’s conclusions, whether they are influenced by logic or his emotions at the time. There are teachers of all sorts scattered through the book that challenge Alder, and push his limits, each with their own flair and relationship to the teachings of the empire. It’s encapsulated nicely and feels explored at just the right amount for it to be fun, but impactful.
Sun King might be the easiest novel to describe I’ve read in a while. It’s a well-realized philosophical meditation sprinkled with fun and delightfully clever moments with a strong fantasy atmosphere. Alder can be frustrating at times, but Greathouse delivers on his arc in curious and heartbreaking ways. The world is explored enough to make the lessons and story work without getting in the way, but left open enough to be detailed in future novels. If you’re looking for something that wanders a little and spends time steeping in its ideas without making the tea bitter, pick up the Hand of the Sun King.
Rating: The Hand of the Sun King – 8.5/10
An ARC of this book was provided to us in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.