It has been a hot second since I have looked at a fiction book, so I decided to revisit a book that I felt was, at least for me, profound and could use a larger audience. The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard came out in early 2019. Here is the official summary from the beginning of the text:
An impulsive word can start a war.
A timely word can stop one.
A simple act of friendship can change the course of history.
Cliopher Mdang is the personal secretary of the Last Emperor of Astandalas, the Lord of Rising Stars, the Lord Magus of Zunidh, the Sun-on-Earth, the god.
He has spent more time with the Emperor of Astandalas than any other person.
He has never once touched his lord.
He has never called him by name.
He has never initiated a conversation.
One day Cliopher invites the Sun-on-Earth home to the proverbially remote Vangavaye-ve for a holiday.
The mere invitation could have seen Cliopher executed for blasphemy.
The acceptance upends the world.
This is not quite what Cliopher expected when he first contemplated the prospect of retirement.
Content Warning for conflict with family, cultural miscommunication, cultural & ethnic discrimination, social & emotional conflict, politics & bureaucracy, risk of life from the elements, legacy of imperialism, emotional & romantic tension.
This was was a book that took me a long time to get thorough when I first read it. I usually complete books much faster, but this one triggered a lot of emotions so I had to pace myself.
This great story hinges around the meetings of cultures, sociopolitical change, and friendship despite rigid social rules, all of which I identified with heavily. I will try to illustrate this without going into spoilers much beyond the publisher’s summary above.
Cultural Contrast in the Hands of the Emperor
Life in the Empire
The main character, Cliopher “Kip” Mdang, is a life-long bureaucrat serving as the secretary for the Emperor & lord magus of a world-spanning empire. This empire used to even cross the boundaries between worlds, linked by great magics. However, many of those magics failed in a catastrophic event a unknown amount of time ago not fully fleshed out in the book. The Empire and the world at large has spent the last number of years attempting to adjust to this new reality. Cliopher has been making gradual changes over his career where he can in a bid to improve things for people throughout the Empire. These efforts suddenly springs to a crescendo when he breaks several court taboos by reaching beyond his previously rigid and professional relationship with the Emperor. We also see the Emperor struggle with the intrusion of court taboos and rituals on his life required of him due to the nature of this universe’s magics making things like direct contact with him dangerous. This has granted him a god-like status that lingers throughout the story.
Life in Vangavaye-ve
Cliopher is also from Vangavaye-ve, which has a very different Polynesian or potentially Micronesian-inspired culture than the home culture of the world-spanning empire he works for. He is the only person from his region that seems to work in the capital, which means he has had to assimilate in order to be taken seriously over the course of his bureaucratic career. The bureaucracy is rather like the Three Departments & Six Ministries system of pre-modern China, Korea, or Vietnam, which has significantly different cultural implications than the cultures of Vangavaye-ve.
While there are no major signs of cultural colonialism in Vangavaye-ve that we on Earth would associate with heavy-handed imperialism, one of the recurring themes of the story is the internal tensions he experiences between Cliopher’s home culture & family and the co-workers/friends & customs he has acquired in the capital. There is a lack of intercultural awareness on both sides that puts a great deal of stress on Cliopher and this comes to the surface at several points of the story. In particular, Cliopher’s struggles with the effect assimilation has on his social status and relationships with family and friends back home had a personal impact on my reading of the story.
An additional positive aspect of this story for me is that transgender & nonbinary people, as well as homosexuality and asexuality are present and treated as rather normal experiences, something that I had not been much exposed to in fantasy writing up to that point.
A weakness of the book is that things can get bogged down with repetition. Often this repetition makes sense in the context and relationship development between the specific characters but sacrifices the tightness of the story. I also want to be clear that this story mainly about people in political high office enacting socio-political change and the relationships between them or their social relationships with the other people in their lives. As a result, this is not a story for someone who prefers consistent action.
Final Impressions of The Hands of the Emperor
Overall, I would give this a 10/10 with the understanding that this is not a book for everyone due to the focus of the book on social and political issues alternating strong moments of slice-of-life and cultural exploration.