ARC provided by the publisher—Gollancz—in exchange for an honest review.
Cover art illustrated by: Patrick Knowles
The Garden of Empire by J.T. Greathouse
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Pact and Pattern (Book #2 of 3)
Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy
Pages: 446 pages (Hardcover edition)
Published: 5th August 2021 by Gollancz
The Garden of Empire did not live up to The Hand of the Sun King, but it is a good sequel—with issues—that also promises incredible things to come in the third and final book of the trilogy.
‘Ambition is only a failing if one cannot live up to it,’
The Hand of the Sun King by J.T. Greathouse was the best fantasy debut I read and published in 2021. I loved everything about The Hand of the Sun King. And as the first book of a trilogy, I think Greathouse’s debut is criminally underrated, and it deserves more readership. Knowing how much I loved the first book in Pact and Pattern trilogy, it is not an exaggeration to say that the second novel, The Garden of Empire, was one of my most anticipated books of this year. And now that I’ve read the book, I’m sad to admit that even though I enjoyed it, it didn’t manage to live up to the quality of its predecessor. Greathouse, if you’re somehow reading this review, stop what you’re doing and browse something else.
“Arrogance buries its roots deep. No matter how we think it is weeded from us, it springs back anew, masking itself with the flower of benevolent purpose.”
Look here, even though I looked forward to reading this book, I was honestly a bit afraid of reading The Garden of Empire due to one storytelling change I heard will be taken by the author for this sequel. Unfortunately, in this case, my fear was founded. I knew before I read this book that unlike The Hand of the Sun King, which is told exclusively from the first-person perspective of Wen Alder, The Garden of Empire will utilize multiple POV characters in the narrative. Those who’ve read The Garden of Empire will know what I’m talking about. I have nothing against multiple POV chapters; you should know this by now. Most of my favorite epic fantasy books are told through several POV characters rather than one. But it gets much trickier when this storytelling decision is applied in the second volume and beyond when the first book of the series is told exclusively through first-person narration. In other words, The Garden of Empire was almost Raven’s Shadow by Anthony Ryan all over again.
“Anger never motivated any pupil to the heights of success.”
For those who haven’t read Blood Song or Raven’s Shadow by Anthony Ryan, I’m going to give you a brief refresher. Vaelin was the sole main character of Blood Song, and he had a relatively small spotlight in the sequel: Tower Lord. Vaelin, the main character of Blood Song, pretty much became a useless supporting character in the third book: Queen of Fire. Fortunately, this degradation of the main character hasn’t happened yet with the series. Wen Alder is still undoubtedly the main character of Pact and Pattern trilogy. Though I will say this, Alder became as infuriating and clueless as Fitz from The Realm of the Elderlings, a character I dearly loved, in The Garden of Empire, but more on this later. My issue with the changes to multiple POV characters is that The Garden of Empire didn’t feel like it required this change.
‘You give me too much credit. As the sage Traveller-on-the-Narrow-Way writes, a sculptor is only as good as the jade in his hands.’
Alder stated in the detailed recap at the beginning of the book that this has turned into a story of an empire, which I understand and necessitate the inclusion of three other POV characters. One is an interlude character, and the other two POV characters are Hand Pinion and Koro Ha. But for about 60% of the book, close to nothing interesting happened in Hand Pinion and Koro Ha’s chapters. There was a big pacing issue or a middle-book syndrome with this. There was a heavy emphasis on magic and world-building, but many explanations were told in an info-dump manner resulting in a forgettable magic system. I would’ve loved having a POV chapter from Atar, but nope. She barely appeared in this sequel. In the first 60% or so, practically nothing crucial happened in the story, and then everything exploded insanely in the last 100 pages. It took me a week to read the first 350 pages and then one sitting to read the final 100 pages. That should show you the fluctuating level of investment I had with The Garden of Empire. If it weren’t for how well-written the prose was, I would’ve dropped the novel before I reached the tension-packed final quarter.
‘We can only arrive at genuine understanding by interrogating our misconceptions… There is no shame in being wrong, so long as one is able to accept correction from your teachers, your parents, and the sages.’
I’ve been pretty negative in my review so far, but I mean what I said that I absolutely loved Greathouse’s prose. This is one aspect where I felt the quality showcased in The Hand of the Sun King remains strong in this sequel. I felt Greathouse’s writing was beautiful, easy, and a joy to read. Regarding the quality of prose, I believe Greathouse is one of the best new fantasy writers. Vivid, immersive, beautifully structured, and Greathouse showed he can certainly write both melancholic and action-packed scenes. As proven in the final sequence of The Garden of Empire.
“When all things align according to their proper place, peace and harmony reign; when things fall out of their ordained position, all descends to chaos and disruption”
The climax sequence of The Garden of Empire was absolutely breathtaking. It is worth persevering to get to this point if you’re struggling with the pacing of the first half. I wondered where the story was going, and by the end, I was so pleasantly surprised by the turn of events. Maybe not the overall execution itself, but the result was just awesome. Not only does the brutal climax sequence escalate the scope and tension of the series, but the thrilling confrontations and ending also show big promises that the third book will be a return to greatness. Who knows, it is very likely the third book may become the best of the trilogy.
‘This might be our only chance. But at what cost? You are treating lives like tools. Worse, like pieces upon a game board, to be spent and risked and lost to achieve your aims. I wonder if this is the empire’s influence on you. I hope so. Then, at least, this callousness would be but a product of the evil I already fight, rather than some evil all its own.’
After all the pros and cons mentioned so far, and how much I loved The Hand of the Sun King, I wish I could give The Garden of Empire a higher rating and more positive review. But going back to the point of Alder being reminiscent of Fitz, and also, some parts of the execution of the climax sequence, there was actually one more major gripe I had with The Garden of Empire. I have to be careful about this because this is spoilery. For the entirety of the book, Alder is convinced he was rightfully doing things out of necessity. This is a great theme, even at the risk of making Alder an infuriating and selfish character to read. I did not mind this. The issue, however, is that people around him willingly did not prevent him from doing what he was determined to do for god knows what reasons. They intentionally kept secrets from him, and in the end, Alder is called stupid and an idiot for doing what he did.
“Every great and meaningful endeavour, I reasoned, must feel impossible to those who begin it. Yet I had no choice but to begin, or else to watch the pattern of the world either remade to suit the cruel vision of the emperor or submerged into the darkest depths of violence and chaos.”
Why are things being kept from Alder for the entirety of the book? No idea. Greathouse might be saving the full revelations for book three, which (once again) makes this an incredibly frustrating trope to use. Or maybe, in the worst case, Greathouse didn’t know what to do with the revelations. The bottom line, right now, the characters keeping secret from Alder throughout the book and then blaming him for his actions are just unforgivable and lazy storytelling. It’s reminiscent of Fitz, but at least for Fitz, we often find out, in the same book, why secrets are kept from him. Here, it doesn’t feel like something that needs to be postponed until the third book. And until I read the final book to find out, and judge for myself, whether the keeping secrets trope is merited or not, the lukewarm rating for The Garden of Empire stays.
“Every choice reshapes the pattern of the world—a heavy enough burden when those choices stood only to reshape one’s own life and the paths one might traverse. How could anyone endure a life so full of choices that shaped the paths of others?”
This review was not easy to write. In fact, I hated writing it. The Hand of the Sun King is one of my favorite books, and I genuinely wished I could love The Garden of Empire much more. I have to be truthful in my reviews. Otherwise, there’s no point in my positive reviews as well. The Garden of Empire is written beautifully, but sadly, it is afflicted with infuriating tropes and the middle-book syndrome. The good thing, though, is what happened at the end of the book showcased the big potential for the third book to be the best of the trilogy. And I sincerely hope that will end up becoming a reality.
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