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ARC provided by the publisher—Gollancz—in exchange for an honest review.
Cover art illustrated by: Patrick Knowles
The Hand of the Sun King by J.T. Greathouse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: Pact and Pattern (Book #1 of 3)
Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy
Pages: 416 pages (Kindle edition)
Published: 5th August 2021 by Gollancz
An all-around marvelously crafted fantasy debut; The Hand of the Sun King has cemented its spot as the best fantasy debut of the year.
I personally think The Hand of the Sun King was even better than The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman, The Helm of Midnight by Marina Lostetter, and She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. I know that this is super high praise because I completely loved those three, but I am shocked at this myself. I didn’t plan to read this novel; this was a hugely impulsive read. Call me a cover snob if you want, but if you know me by now, you know that I love taking chances on an unknown debut or novels with awesome cover art. Believing in my gut has often lead me to a superior reading experience, and this notion has been proven once more here.
“It is a great strength of the young, this willingness to shoulder risk. It can also be our greatest weakness.”
The Hand of the Sun King is the first book in the Pact and Pattern trilogy by J.T. Greathouse. The story revolves around Wen Alder, or Foolish Cur, a boy torn between two legacies; one of his father, whose ancestries trace back to the right hand of the emperor; one of his mother, who reject the Empire. However, there may exist a better path, a magical path filled with secrets. By attaining this path, freedom from the shackle of legacies can be achieved, and Alder wants it. To do that, he has to take the Imperial Examinations, the first step to becoming The Hand of the Emperor and wield the Empire’s magic. The Hand of the Sun King is a coming-of-age fantasy with a magic—and calligraphy—school trope and beyond; in an Asian-inspired world-building setting. Now, I am no stranger to voicing how much I love these tropes done well, and Greathouse did an exceptional job on executing these tropes on his debut. The themes of friendship, apprenticeship, freedom, and the determination to choose our own path—to not have someone else decide our fates—were dominant in the days of companionship and learning that Alder undertook.
“As every decaying leaf and growing tree helps to shape the pattern of the world, so every human act shapes the paths that we might follow. And those in power, like Voices of the emperor, or ministers of trade, can shape those paths with a motion of their will.”
The character development of Wen Alder throughout the novel was outstanding. Alder isn’t a thoroughly flawless or kind-hearted character; he was arrogant as a boy, and he made a lot of mistakes despite his natural talents with magic and every other aspect. Honestly speaking, I totally enjoyed reading the gradual development in his characterizations. There’s something genuine about his thirst and pursuit of knowledge and magic. Walder continuously learned the hard way that he’s not as good as he thinks he is; I felt that this built his character wonderfully. Furthermore, his well-written relationship with his grandmother, Koro Ha, Oriole, Usher, Atar, and the other supporting characters truly shaped his characterizations.
“If the choice is between understanding some deeper truth or fighting for a chance to make good on all the harm I have done, then I choose to fight.”
The Hand of the Sun King was not epic in scope per se, but the world itself felt real, expansive, and vivid because we readers get to learn more about the politics and cultures of the world together with Alder’s progression in the story. As I said earlier, this is a coming-of-age fantasy, and the feeling of loneliness in the isolation of adulthood was so palpable. But it’s not all bleakness and sorrow; there’s hope, there’s love, and there’s a lot to learn here, and we need to remember to treasure the people important to us while we’re able to. We all have our own shackles and difficulties in our life, but it doesn’t mean we have to face them alone; sometimes, even the kindness of a stranger can be the light of hope in the darkness. Everything felt executed efficiently and effectively; the topic of politics, economy, and the difficulty of cooperation between people of different social status/cultures were handled with extraordinary finesse.
“Guilt gnawed at me and I recalled the Classic of Wealth and Labour, in which Traveller-on-the-Narrow-way wrote that a merchant is no better than a bandit if his wealth does not elevate the farmers and craftsmen who are the backbone of the empire.”
War, loyalty, leadership were some of the other pivotal themes of the novel. The conjuration of the elemental magic and how the pattern of the world affects it was so brilliant and atmospheric. Yes, if you love reading about ancient mysterious gods and elemental magic in your high fantasy books, you’re in luck here. There’s veering, windcaller, firecaller, and more, but it’s not all brutal destructions and ruin. Without giving any spoiler away, there were some gorgeous scenes involving the combination of wind and fire that I found to be so mesmerizing. The conflicts surrounding the canon of sorcery were captivating, and the devastations that lie in the path of its wakening enhanced the tension-packed battles. I’m not saying that The Hand of the Sun King is a heavily action-packed novel; that’s really not the case. But each battle scene was brimming with intensity, and it’s good to witness and be reminded that magic can be used for fruitful purposes, too. Plus, Alder’s obsession and fascination with magic continue to strengthen the core strength of the storytelling.
“There was a horrible justice in these warriors circling each other without end, meting out petty wounds, slowly bleeding each other dry, but always failing to deal a killing blow. If only they could do battle alone, isolated from the pattern of the world. Somewhere that their war would not leave towns besieged and starving. Where the romantic tales of wars long past could never trick the young into seeking glory, only to drag them down into death.”
Lastly, I can’t praise Greathouse’s prose highly enough. The first-person POV of Alder was magnificent, and the pacing has a consistently addictive quality to it, but more importantly, Greathouse’s beautiful prose was utterly engaging. It’s such an exquisitely written book; the prose was accessible but never too simplistic, and the world-building felt intricately designed. Elegant, lush, philosophical, and compulsive, Greathouse left an echo of beauty with each word stamped with his brush of ink. I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise, The Hand of the Sun King is one of the very few—or maybe the first—high fantasy novel with a story that actually prioritized handwriting and calligraphies in the narrative. I certainly haven’t read many books that put such a clear emphasis on the advantage of being ambidextrous. I’ve highlighted a myriad of passages, and I wish I can share them with you all. Alas, that’s not possible unless I risk transforming this review into a collection of quotes from the book. I’ve shared a few on this review, but there’s so much more I haven’t shared. Instead, I’ll leave you with this:
“’The energy present in the body and the mind in the moment of writing is reflected in the brush stroke.’ By a close examination of a handwriting sample – and a proper understanding of the context in which that writing sample was composed – one can deduce a great deal about the personality and attitudes of an individual. People are far worse at regulating their handwriting than they are their facial expressions, tone of voice, and even body language. Yet masterful calligraphers learn such deft control of the brush that they can convey whatever temperament they wish.”
My reading journey this year so far—with the exception of a few standouts—has been unsatisfactory. The Hand of the Sun King arrived like a divine intervention to remedy that situation. This is the fourth book I read this year to receive a full 5 stars rating from me. My sleeping hours were happily sacrificed due to reading this book, and each waking moment I’m not reading it, I was looking forward to diving back in. The Hand of the Sun King deserves a mark of excellence. It is a spellbinding debut with terrific characterizations, immersive world-building, and prose that swept me away. The Hand of the Sun King is hands down the best debut of the year. Scratch that; this is one of the best debuts I’ve ever read, not just this year. I absolutely loved it, and I recommend this to readers who love coming-of-age fantasy. Bravo, J. T. Greathouse.
“Some moments fix themselves in memory, to be recalled again and again throughout our lives.”
Official release date: 5th August 2021 (UK)
You can pre-order the book from: Amazon UK | Book Depository (Free shipping) | The Broken Binding (Use my code: NOVELNOTIONS121 for discount!)
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
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