The Garden of Empire – Lush, But Lightly Untended

Last year, J. T. Greathouse delivered a pleasant surprise with his debut fantasy novel, The Hand of the Sun King. Alder Wen was a particularly entertaining protagonist, despite his many follies. The book featured philosophical musings on the nature of power and Wen’s determined search for a third way between empire and rebellion that fomented disastrous consequences for those around him. I had a great time with it and eagerly anticipated the sequel. However, The Garden of Empire stumbles a little bit in its execution, succeeding in opening up the world, while paring back character and introspection in exchange for plot. Mild spoilers for the end of The Hand of the Sun King. 

Foolish Cur, once known to the empire as Alder Wen, has thrown his lot in with the rebellion that has reached full boil with his homeland of Nayen. His uncle, wearing the mantle of Sun King of Nayen, leads a rebellion against the empire, bringing violent retribution wherever he goes. Nayeni traitors and imperial citizens are punished in equal measure. Foolish Cur attempts to mitigate the righteous rage of his uncle with the help of his grandmother, but he is still seen as an outsider. He’s also juggling his relationship with the gods by learning the ways of being a “witch of the old sort” through his tenuous friendship with the witch, Hissing Cat. He plans to honor the gods overlooking his newfound power by challenging the emperor Tenet, and stopping his war against the gods. Meanwhile, Foolish Cur’s old teacher, Koro Ha, is experiencing some ramification of Foolish Cur’s turn as he tries to start a school, teaching his own conquered people how to navigate the imperial system. Can Foolish Cur challenge the emperor on his own?

It’s not that The Garden of Empire is a bad book by any means. I enjoyed it though on a lesser level than The Hand of the Sun King. I’ll rip the band-aid off of the frustrating parts first. The previous book had an excellent back and forth of the philosophies and the magic systems that supported the ideals Wen encountered. Its limited perspective allowed the story to grow organically as Wen tested the boundaries of Sienese doctrine, while flirting with the old ways of Nayeni magic. His growth came through slow lessons learned painfully as his ambition exceeded his grasp.

In The Garden of Empire, these lessons are few and far between. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and a change of pace can often lead to exciting developments. However, I felt severed from the flow as I watched Foolish Cur blunder blindly through obstacles laid at his feet. It didn’t help that his teacher, Hissing Cat, was purposefully vague and walked into the jungle whenever Foolish Cur had a conflict he had to resolve. I’m not saying Hissing Cat needed to have the answers, but the lack of a back and forth left me with Foolish Cur’s own thoughts, which often felt like a reversion. Maybe that was part of the point, but it never felt reinforced by the other perspectives within the story. On top of that, I was a little annoyed with his over fondness for his friend Oriole, reflected on with a nostalgia that was a little too sappy for my taste. Lastly, I felt his quest to challenge the emperor’s canon, with his own, progressed a little too quickly. I’m not one for “hard” magic systems, but I felt there was a lack of attention paid to the development.

That said, I really appreciated Greathouse’s attempt to open up the world. The introduction of three new perspectives expanded the view of the empire and how it sinks its teeth into the world. Koro Ha’s return to his once-free land of Toa Alon, the land of the stone speakers, was pure bliss. I loved that his story revolved around the idea of a great teacher still needing to be taught. It highlighted the restrictive nature of Sienese doctrine, while showcasing Koro Ha’s own reluctance to challenge it within himself. These sections maintained the philosophical interaction with the material world I enjoyed so much within Hand. It truly felt like high stakes, and it had a few moments that pumped adrenaline into my veins over debates, which kudos to Greathouse. I also enjoyed Hand Pinion’s perspective, showing the opposite of Foolish Cur’s story. He was someone who resorted to bending doctrine to reinforce the emperor’s will, even though he challenged core ideas within it. It was also an excellent portrayal of “doing the necessary thing,” which involved the sacrifice of lives to maintain a sense of order and purpose. My only gripe about his story is that I wish it was a clearer foil to Foolish Cur, bringing out some of the lessons Greathouse seemed to want to impart.

The last perspective was more of a set up storyline for the next book, so I won’t go into too much detail there, but it was definitely something I wanted to see more of, and I hope we, as readers, get deeper insights in the next book. They will certainly help set the stage for the conflict that’s brewing.

Beyond all of that, Greathouse’s prose is still a joy to read. It is colorful and introspective, painting the world with beautiful strokes. The dialogue has a poetic quality to it, as if everyone is taught to discuss things with care and grace. When characters don’t speak this way, it showcases their upbringing outside the empire and really solidifies what is at stake. It makes those outside the boundaries feel grounded and making a life on a whim, whereas those within are constrained and have to consider the few paths available to them. They are unable to shape their own destiny, unless it’s through the power of the emperor. Some lines took my breath away or sent shivers up and down my spine because of the delivery. I adored it immensely.

The Garden of Empire may have stumbled a little bit for me, but there is plenty to love about this book. It doesn’t feel wholly sacrificed to set up the third book, however, it does put Greathouse in a great position for it. It could have spent a little more time making certain aspects of the world and Foolish Cur’s journey a bit clearer, reducing the stakes of the in-moment rebellion. I’m excited to see what he has in store for Koro Ha, and see where Foolish Cur ends up. It isn’t quite the classic “sophomore slump,” but it contains aspects of it. But if you enjoyed the first book, I think The Garden of Empire is still worth your while.

Rating: The Garden of Empire – 7.5/10

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An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.

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