Loyalties relentlessly tested, weighty consequences, a cast of meaningful, well-developed characters, and a lush world that carefully considers its lore, economic struggles, and religious history, it’s easy for me to call The Hand of the Sun King one of my top reads of 2021.
In the free country of Nayen and the encroaching imperialist Empire, there exist hybrid creatures such as lion-serpents and eagle-hawks that roam the countryside. These animals struck me as symbolic of the book’s narrator, who was born and raised in two worlds: first, as Wen Alder, destined to take on the mantle of his father’s lineage by restoring the family name back into the Empire’s good graces. Alder has been tutored nonstop since an early age (and in doing so, missing his entire childhood) in preparation for a job placement exam within the patriarchal, yet resourceful, Empire. But to others, Wen Alder is known as Forbidden Cur, raised in secret by his grandmother, a rebel Nayen who sneaks him out in the dark of night to train him in swordplay and educate him in the lore of his Nayen roots before the last of her rebel cohorts are wiped clean from the history books.
Alder/Cur is first and foremost a seeker of knowledge. After finding out (the hard way) he is sensitive to magic, he vows to dedicate his life to understanding the pattern of the world, and how he can grasp its inner workings. Up until early adulthood, he has lived a life with all his choices having been made for him. His tutor has raised him in solitude, where twelve-hour study days were the norm. His grandmother, while having good intentions, only shared small pieces of the knowledge and power A.C. desired. Even after he becomes of age and begins to seek out agency, he finds his limitations more frustrating—and dangerously binding—than ever.
What is so fascinating about this book is that no matter how brilliant A.C. is, his back is always up against the wall, and his loyalties are always, always tested. The more he tries to walk the middle path between the two worlds he was raised in, the more violently he is torn to one side or another. The more he tries to lean into learning more about his magical connection, the more he finds he is bound in both practice and knowledge. Greathouse achieves a constant, relentless tension that pushes Alder/Cur through increasingly harrowing decisions that made the book extremely difficult for me to put down. There was always a reason to keep reading; the prose brought color to each setting, the cast motivations kept changing, and the book threaded the needle between character and story progression.
Beyond themes of loyalty and higher knowledge, there are other topics covered with a subtle grace really stuck with me. As mentioned above, The Empire is a heavily patriarchal society, thus the conversations that A.C. has with his mother, grandmother, and other women in his life were very well-written and elicited strong, relatable emotions. The cast of the book was rather small, and particular attention was spent building tangible relationships with each character he spent time with, emphasizing strong characterization for nearly every major player in the story. Even some of the minor characters had arcs I was invested in, and Greathouse left plenty of mysteries from these minor players open that left me eagerly hanging for what comes next.
A.C.’s story is a first-person reliable narrator, so we’re sometimes treated with tidbits like, “if I had only done X instead of Y, then the world might have been so different,” which adds some extra oomph and quite a bit more fun to certain scenes. But that’s all bonus, as the story feels both fresh and familiar all at once. It’s a journey of self-discovery, identity, sacrifice, maturity, agency, and courage to fight tooth and claw against what’s coming. And a LOT is coming.
I don’t think there are any weak points to this story. I wanted to spend more time with A.C., more time in this world learning the history of the two types of magic, and the political and blood-soaked rebellions, and of the brilliant scholar trying to carve his way through the middle of it all — and most of the time, failing miserably. But through the growing pains are signs of hope — for A.C., for the Nayen people, and for the preservation of a dying culture and its witchy ways.
Greathouse has written a memorable character in Wen Alder and Forbidden Cur. He is a man whose life has been divided in two since his birth and given no choices of his own along the way, and I found it hard to root against him. When he fails, he fails through action, not lack of it. He has a constant drive to succeed, no matter where life places him, and his brilliance that outshines his peers doesn’t always go over so well in each environment. It’s all compelling stuff. Add in a very cool magic system with weighty consequences, a cast of meaningful, well-developed characters, and a lush world that carefully considers its lore, economic struggles, and religious history, it’s easy for me to call The Hand of the Sun King one of my top reads of 2021.