The Hand of the Sun King was the first-person autobiographical recounting of Wen Alder’s formative years. As The Garden of Empire mentions quite early on, there is still much of Wen Alder’s story to tell, yet this is now becoming the story of an empire. This is a neat way of explaining that throughout this entry, we follow Alder’s first-person perspective again, and we also follow another handful of point-of-view perspective characters, in the third person. Alder’s former tutor Kora Ha is one of the perspectives presented, as is Hand Pinion, brother to Alder’s one-time best friend. These are both characters that readers will be familiar with from the first book, and to bolster this tale of the empire is a new character who has an untamed magic and potential that is making the Gods pay attention, in a similar fashion to the way they are acknowledging Alder’s presence and importance. The switch between first and third-person perspectives works smoothly and isn’t jarring at all. It’s seamless to the extent I only really noticed it when I was 75% through the novel.
The Hand of the Sun King was presented as Alder having to choose between two sets of cultures, magics, and loyalties. Playing in the back of his mind was his competitive drive and ambition to gain the full potential of unrestricted magic that he had glimpsed so briefly and dangerously in his youth. In The Garden of Empire Wen Alder (or Foolish Cur as he’s known to one contingent) has picked and/or been forced to choose a side. He still wishes to master and understand magic’s full potential and he wants to draw his own route through the world whilst keeping those he cares about safe.
I commented within my The Hand of the Sun King review that the magic system seemed tidy and not over-complicated. It’s more of the same here, however, the cannons of magic, the different styles of power, and the way that they can be wielded are all presented as more in-depth and expanded upon. It’s at a point now that with Greathouse’s set foundations, further explanations, and Alder’s magical trials and exploits, as a reader, we understand the magic as precisely as Alder does. This is with all its potential and possibilities, yet it isn’t without its dangers and unpredictability.
I really enjoyed following Alder as a protagonist again which I guess makes me a glutton for punishment as lots of unfortunate things still seem to happen to him and those he cares about. This is taking into consideration that he’s grown and matured, and all things considered, seems to be making better choices and giving pretty good advice. Alder has traits and “luck” that are reminiscent of FitzChivalry Farseer from The Realm of the Elderlings, one of my favourite fantasy protagonists.
Alder’s point of view page time was my favourite to follow but Koro Ha and Pinion’s chapters definitely grew on me the more I read them. With Koro Ha, we see the reverberations of him tutoring someone who, unbeknown to him, would become a rebel. Through his storyline, we witness new cultures and parts of the world that weren’t shown in the first entry. With Hand Pinion’s narrative, readers are presented with the internal happenings of the empire: the opposite side of the rebellion, maybe elements of imposter syndrome when he compares himself to his brother, and someone who wants revenge. There are also many side characters who shine when they are given the limelight. Many members of Greathouse’s ensemble are an absolute joy to read about, effortlessly complimenting the main players and showcasing excellent banter, wit, and dialogue. There are a few hidden motives, mysteries, and revelations throughout too.
I rated The Hand of the Sun King with a strong 9/10 rating. I’ll award The Garden of Empire with a 7.5/10 yet I think most who enjoyed the first will find a lot to savour here too. I personally thought that between the 35%-70% mark, some chapters dragged a bit and I wasn’t glued to the pages as I had been at other points in this series. Some of these slower moments were successful though in adding quality and depth to the world-building and Greathouse’s fantasy world feels a lot more complete and organic now.
Koro Ha’s tale and another point of view narrative don’t have as much of a solid and rewarding payoff as Alder and Pinion’s do. That being said, the loose ends with regards to those characters seem very intriguing and the last 20%, in general, is superb and on par with the finest moments I’ve read in SFF so far this year. The characters and the world at the end of The Garden of Empire are almost unrecognisable from what we’re welcomed to at the start and I’m all-in for the final novel in this series, which Greathouse is hopeful will be released in 2023. I can’t wait to see what happens next to Wen Alder/Foolish Cur and how his decisions will continue to affect the empire and the world.
I received a review copy of The Garden of Empire in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to J.T. Greathouse and Gollancz.