The Hands Of The Emperor – Family And Fun In The Sun

I have been hearing excellent things about Victoria Goddard for a long time. Although she seems fairly underread, several people I trust mentioned that she is making fabulous books with little comparison. When I asked where I should start with her works I was given numerous different answers, but I eventually found this list on her website that suggested I start with The Hands of the Emperor. Did anyone give me a clear reason why I should start with a 1000-page book about established characters in the middle of an intertwining series? No. Did I also love the ever-living shit out of a 1000-page book about established characters in the middle of an intertwining series? Yes.

As far as I can tell, Goddard is self-published, which means getting your hands-on physical copies of her books is both difficult and expensive. This resulted in me picking up an ebook of Hands, and upon discovering that it was enormous prompted me to shelve it for a year or two. I recently had a long beach vacation with a lot of dead time for reading big books outside my new release schedule and I decided, sure, why not, let’s see if this Emperor has Hands. Turns out I made a large tactical error holding off on this book, but in my defense, I am dumb.

So what is this mysterious book about? Well, in a sense a lot of things, and in another sense simply the idea of diversity and inclusion. The story follows Cliopher Mdang, the personal secretary of the Last Emperor of Astandalas, the Lord of Rising Stars, the Lord Magus of Zunidh, the Sun-on-Earth – basically a God. As God’s personal secretary, Cliopher basically runs the government in all but name, directing and easing the flow of problems and solutions presented to the Emperor like a bureaucratic conductor. What is interesting about Cliopher is that he is from an island nation that is part of the empire but famously remote, and he is one of the only people from his nation to enter the imperial service.

After taking a vacation to see his beloved and large islander family, Cliopher notices a remote mansion for rent and ponders that it would be a wonderful place for a rest. Upon returning to the palace and resuming his duties to the Emperor, Cliopher notices that the Emperor is exhausted by his duties and living in a haze of duty. Cliopher then decides to make the single most suicidal decision of his life and asks the Emperor if he would like to go on a vacation with him. Even more surprising, the Emperor accepts. On this vacation, the Emperor realizes that he is tired, of everything. The newfound delight in not having to work 24/7 has filled him with life again and he decides to step down. And while he is looking for a successor, he is going to leave Cliopher in charge.

Something interesting about The Hands of the Emperor is that while it sounds like a power fantasy on the surface, it’s really more of a story about the wonders of bureaucracy, service, and family. While Chliopher’s cute vacation with the Emperor is delightful, it really is only the first fourth of the book while the back 75% is him trying to wrestle a gigantic behemoth of an empire into a state that it doesn’t burn down the moment the Emperor looks away. Coupled with this is a very resonant throughline of the experiences of a person divorced from their home.

Cliopher comes from a wonderful island nation with a deep and rich culture that we get to experience intimately throughout the book. However, we learn early on that he was never quite the right piece for the puzzle in his homeland and he eventually felt the call of service to try and better the world by entering the civil service. This caused a huge rift between him and his family as leaving one’s home was something that culturally was simply not done, hence the very low attendance of the nation in the service. Yet, despite the hardships, Cliopher persists and follows his heart to the service… only to be met with opposition from the opposite direction. As the singular member of his nation at court Cliopher is met with an enormous amount of resistance as a barbarian outlander. Seen as something between a curious exotic and an ignorant hick, Cliopher spends most of his time forcing his way upstream against enormous opposition. These pushing and pulling forces in Cliopher’s life make up the majority of the focus of the book.

In addition to the themes and ideas of The Hands of the Emperor are fabulous, the writing is also top-notch. The prose is astoundingly beautiful, often moving me to intense heartache and tears. Descriptions of incredible natural wonder suck the breath from your lungs and paragraphs showing the reader the man-made wonder of the Empire bedazzle the imagination. The human emotion of the story is conveyed with a raw vulnerability that teleports you into the shoes of Cliopher with extreme ease and I found myself going through new elements of the human experience I had previously never tasted.

To top this off, Cliopher is an absolutely delightful character. In absolutely no way a blank slate, Cliopher is brimming with a rare quiet strength that speaks to how he can run an extremely complicated government. He is kind, humble (to the point of it being a genuine flaw), self-sacrificing, thoughtful, and someone I could only hope to aspire to be more like. His feelings about the importance of service are touching in a way that had me emailing local charities to see how I could volunteer more. He is an unparalleled delight to spend time with and he is only one of the many fabulous characters that litter the book. For starters, we also have the Emperor, a distant and severe figure that Goddard sold me on. I found myself thinking, “Yes, it would be an honor to spend my life serving someone like this” as I read about this walking god. The Emperor’s entourage is Cliopher’s only real friends, made up of his master of ceremonies, guards, etc. and they are also all fabulous. But the most interesting characters are Cliopher’s huge and varied family we meet through the entire book and the fascinating friction between him and his loved ones.

A big part of this story stems from the conflict between Cliopher’s identity and his perceived identity in the eyes of his family. This takes many different forms, such as why Cliopher left, his importance in the government, his level of general success, and his service to his home. The exploration of miscommunication between people who genuinely love each other but can’t seem to speak the same language is excellent. It provides genuine food for thought on the importance of making an effort to show your loved ones who you are and making an effort to see your loved ones for who they are. It is a wonderful subject that I think Goddard executed perfectly.

Jumping very quickly to a negative, because there is only one I found. As is the nature of this sort of book, I do think it could have been edited down slightly. There are a few ideas that are explored multiple times without anything added resulting in a rehash of already covered topics. This isn’t a huge deal, as I enjoyed these subjects the first time, but in a 900+ page book, they can start to visibly drag the pacing of an already titanic read. I think you could probably cut about 100 pages to make it most streamlined and hard-hitting, but I honestly still enjoyed those 100 pages of fluff so it isn’t a big deal.

The Hands of the Emperor is easily one of the best books I have read in awhile. It has instantaneously elevated Goddard to the levels of other favorite authors that took years of reading to reach. My first action upon finishing this book was to buy the rest of Goddard’s catalogue and I am planning my retreat from society to have the time to read everything she has written. The Hands of the Emperor is an enormous success and I highly recommend you read it.

Rating: The Hands of the Emperor – 9.5/10

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