The Hand of the Sun King by J. T. Greathouse

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Publisher: Gollancz

Publish Date: 05 August 2021

Page Count: 416 pages

I saw Petrik Leo’s 5-star review of The Hand of the Sun King back in April, so I decided to make grabbyhands and get a review copy for myself (and because savvy fantasy readers always listen to Petrik). Rave reviews have continued to pour in leading up to the novel’s publication earlier this month, so I’ve been excited to check it out.

I have to agree with the compliments on J. T. Greathouse’s writing, considering I sped through half this book in an afternoon (a decent reading session by my standards). His storytelling feels refined–even more so being a debut author–achieving an introspective tone while remaining quite visual and picturesque. The Hand of the Sun King is one of those books where you stop paying attention to the writing altogether and focus on experiencing the story (as evidenced by my shortage of quotes for this review). Honestly, I didn’t even notice that this book is written in first person until I paused to take stock around halfway through. Excellent reviewer skills, I know.

Perhaps it’s because I read the series recently, but for me, THotSK felt akin to a PG-rated (PG-13 in the later chapters) version of The Traitor Baru Cormorant, but with a heavier focus on magic. Like Baru, Wen Alder (or Foolish Cur) is a young protagonist raised in a country recently conquered by an oppressive empire toting prescriptive propriety. They are both raised within their own culture in their early years before being groomed to sit official aptitude tests and earn a respected position in the Evil Empire, each harbouring secret motives. Each protag turns out to be uncommonly intelligent and eventually becomes an accountant for another recently conquered country with rebellious tendencies. 

Beyond these commonalities, the two plots are admittedly quite different. As I mentioned, Greathouse writes with a strong focus on magic – a mysterious and violent kind with divine origins, which is one of the coolest things about this novel. But overall, there were enough similarities that the book lacked the new, fresh and unique fantasy badassery that I was hoping for after reading a couple of reviews.

“We all leave a wake in the world, often a destructive one. At best, we can make amends.”

The other aspect of the story I didn’t quite connect with was the main character. Though I started to warm to Alder in the final chapters, I found it difficult to sympathise with him, let alone like him. While others describe THotSK as a coming of age story about a boy with conflicting allegiances, I felt Alder’s only real loyalty was to his desire to learn the secrets of magic. His regard for the people around him in achieving this goal at times borders on sociopathic. 

There’s nothing wrong with having a disagreeable protagonist, as is often the way of dark fantasy. But it’s a little difficult to swallow without that grimdark context, and when the book delivers a redemption arc that boils down to guilt and a hunger for power rather than developing maturity, intelligence or moral character. 

If Greathouse had written this story from more than one perspective, I think it could have helped address the sense of disconnect between Alder and the people around him, which to me, came across largely as indifference. It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel told from a single point of view, so perhaps I’ve just missed some of the subtleties of Alder’s character growth without the support of an outsider’s perspective.

These two things aside, I did find THotSK an enjoyably comfortable read. I perked up significantly in the final chapters as Alder learns deeper truths about the world around him, and the stakes were raised.

The first instalment in a trilogy (or possible quadrilogy), Greathouse’s debut does an excellent job of setting up a story with a lot of potential, so I look forward to seeing what Alder get’s up to in the sequel.

Many thanks to the publisher for a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review!

Trigger warnings: cutting/scarification, death of family, graphic violence, mutilation, torture

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