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Lays of the Hearth-Fire #1

The Hands of the Emperor

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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.

969 pages, Kindle Edition

First published January 8, 2019

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About the author

Victoria Goddard

35 books391 followers
I walked across England in 2013, fulfilling a long-held dream. I'm currently the sexton of an Anglican church in Nova Scotia, which means I am keeper of the keys and opener of doors (and shutter-off of alarms). I have a PhD in medieval studies from the University of Toronto, looking at poetry and philosophy in the works of Dante and Boethius -- both the poetry and the philosophy come into my stories a great deal (and occasionally the Dante and the Boethius).

I like writing about the ordinary lives of magical people on the other side of the looking glass ... and the extraordinary deeds of ordinary folk, too. Three of my favourite authors are Patricia McKillip (especially 'The Riddle-Master of Hed' trilogy and 'The Bell at Sealy Head'), Connie Willis ('Bellwether' and 'To Say Nothing of the Dog,' which latter would make my top-ten books on a desert island), and Lois McMaster Bujold ('The Curse of Chalion' and its sequels). I'm aiming somewhere between them and Neil Gaiman's 'Stardust' ...

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 443 reviews
Profile Image for Alexandra Rowland.
Author 11 books847 followers
May 29, 2021
This book breaks all the laws of book physics. By all rights, this book should not have worked, and yet it DOES, brilliantly, because Victoria Goddard is just that BREATHTAKINGLY good at characters. This is the kindest, gentlest, most empathetic book I have ever read, and it is still delightfully funny and wry, and it has a burning core of fierce righteousness and a belief that good people doing hard, thankless work can make the world BETTER (they institute worldwide universal basic income!!!). The friendship between the two main characters is incredibly profound and I've never read anything like it.

Additionally, I do not as a rule cry at books. In all my life there were only two books I've ever cried at, and only one scene in each of them. This is the third, and I must have had tears pouring down my face at more than a dozen scenes, not because they are sad at all--nothing very sad happens in this book--but simply because of how much this book CARES, how much these characters matter, and how keenly it portrays the ache of someone with a dream in their heart wanting badly to be Known and Seen and Understood as he really is.

Please, please, please read this book. This is my favorite, favorite book. I have not had a favorite book in years, but this is it.
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 58 books8,097 followers
February 22, 2022
Read for the 'randos rec me 12 books' Twitter challenge.

Absolutely loved the first half or so of this. Novel of manners, with the Emperor and his loyal secretary establishing a friendship through the layers of protocol, with interesting worldbuilding and loads of character. Great relationships and all sorts of plot elements weaving together that seem to be working up to a complex political situation, with thoughts about culture and influence and how to change power structures.

Sadly, the second half rather disintegrated. It contains multiple variations on the same two scenes: either someone is rude to Cliopher, and is firmly put in their place by the revelation of his status and personal impressiveness, or Cliopher sits embarrassed while other characters tell each other how amazing he is. The first time we see him put down some racist aristocrat we cheer; by the time he's the acknowledged second most powerful man in the entire world, it's somewhat embarrassing to see him score off a minor provincial bank manager or rude aunt. It's the Clark Kent moment (which is fairness we all adore), where the unassuming MC is revealed to be a superhero and thus vindicated to their astonished family, played out over and over again for the best part of 400 pages.

This is very clearly what the author wanted to do, and it's also what the book is about to a large extent: the theme of visible status vs invisible power is hugely important, and the issues of what good governance and the responsible exercise of power look like. As is the question of home, and family, and being torn between cultures. All of that matters, though for me the meaning was rather swamped by the presentation in the second half. And it's still very atmospheric and world-building and if what you are searching for is the triumph of the kind and decent man then this delivers a *lot* of that. But I regretted that we saw so little in the way of political machinations or tension, not to mention so little of the Emperor, in the second half, and the repetitive structure just didn't work for me. Hey ho.
Profile Image for Jenia.
413 reviews102 followers
May 25, 2021
Oh wow, a book that out-The Goblin Emperor's The Goblin Emperor. I found it so compulsively readable and cozy: the main character Kip just wants to do good in the world (like introducing universal basic income??? more fantasy books should do this omg!!). The main "plot" is really his developing relationship with his emperor, who he starts off the book extremely formal with, and with his family, who love him but really don't get what he's off doing in the capital and just want him to come home. Immigrant feels ahoy :')

In general I side eye longer books and this is a loooong book, and I genuinely think some chapters near the end could have been condensed.

But putting that aside, this is just the nicest coziest slice of life book. Kip and gang go on vacation! Kip and gang fix a harp! Kip and gang have super fucked up tragic backstories and slowly open up to each other and overcome trauma! Kip and gang go to an art gallery! Yay! Oh and gang = mostly Kip's middle aged friends. Fuck yeah.
Profile Image for Kim Aippersbach.
167 reviews15 followers
January 19, 2021
I’ve just read another book that has me babbling incoherently. I have no idea how to organize my thoughts about this book so I think I will just blither at you.

This book is the perfect, the ideal book to read in these troubling times. If you want to read a book in which nothing terribly bad happens, if you want to read a book about nice people being nice to each other, about good people doing good things, this is that book. This is also a book about the aftermath of a global catastrophe, and about the rebuilding required, and it is an infinitely hopeful book in that regard. (To the point of being hopelessly idealistic, perhaps, but the world could use more idealism at the moment!) Someone described this book as competence porn: if you love watching competent people do their jobs competently, this is the book for you.

I was drawn in by the blurb, which reveals the central twist at the heart of the book: which I can't seem to put into coherent words. Power, and relationships, and the difference between how people are seen and how they are. (Those words don't elucidate it at all, sorry!) But I can say that if that blurb intrigues you, you will not be disappointed.

This is not a plot-based book by any means. The entire first quarter consists of a group of nice people who like each other going on vacation in a beautiful, friendly place. I enjoyed it so much! It isn't remotely boring for a number of important reasons: complex power dynamics are being tested and redefined in simple actions such as deciding to go swimming; a fascinating, vibrant world is being gradually revealed; the tentative friendship developing between the Emperor and his secretary Cliopher is delightful to watch; and there is the piquancy of dramatic irony in almost every scene, because no one knows that this is the Emperor. (I've always been particularly tickled by the conceit that here's an important/significant/powerful person and everyone else bustles around officiously having no idea who they are. Like that scene in Sabriel when she first crosses the border.)

That conceit is actually the organizing conceit of the novel, because no one actually knows who Cliopher is, even though everyone thinks they do.

The Hands of the Emperor is a character study: a long, deep, complex, extended character study of a really interesting person. Cliopher is a bureaucrat—and if you think would never want to read the story of a bureaucrat, this book will change your mind. He loves his job; he is exceedingly good at his job; he is transforming the world through his job. He also has an amazing backstory, which gets gradually revealed, and the way his story is told—by whom, to whom, under what circumstances—is crucial to the plot, the character development—it's really interestingly done.

This book is a true successor to The Goblin Emperor. If you loved that book you will also love this one. Cliopher is heart kin to Maia. They would like one another, they would recognize in each other similar challenges, desires and goals. The way politics and world events are used as backdrops to define and highlight character is very similar in both books.

You know who else would like Cliopher: Miles Vorkosigan. He is almost as opposite a character as can be, and yet they share the same passion, incorruptibility, desire for justice, joy in service. (They need to meet later in Miles's career, though. Cliopher would probably have a hard time with younger Miles!)

Goddard's writing has the same combination of wisdom and humour that I enjoy in Lois McMaster Bujold's work. Her prose is delightful.

This is a book about friendship, about family, about how our identities are tied up with our families and our friends. It is also a treatise on culture: what culture means, why culture is essential and necessary and intrinsically woven with our identity. And it brilliantly, viscerally, gorgeously elucidates what it means to be from different cultures, what it takes to understand a different culture. (If you liked what Rachel Neumeier did in Tuyo, know that The Hands of the Emperor does that in spades. And bulldozers.)

The world building in this book, oh my! It reminds me most of Sherwood Smith and her novels set in Sartorias-Delas. So broad and deep and full of detail. Its a multi-world empire with strange magic and stranger history, and you won't understand all of it, but the parts you need to understand will end up written in your hearts.

I'm getting ridiculous so it's time to stop. I can't recommend this book highly enough to people who like the same kind of books I do. It hits all of my buttons. I immediately bought the sequel, which is shorter and in an entirely different style (and focuses on a different main character) but which I liked just as much (and she's promised a sequel with Cliopher, so yay!)

I will mention two caveats: The Hands of the Emperor is self-published, and there are rather more typos than I'm used to encountering. There is also a structural flaw (I think that's the best way to describe it) that would probably have been corrected by more editing. I was bothered by it, but it didn't diminish my enjoyment of the book as a whole—I still say this is going to be one of my all-time favourite novels, one I will re-read over and over again. It's that good.

Cross-posted on my blog: Dead Houseplants
Profile Image for Jamie Collins.
1,427 reviews265 followers
November 28, 2021
1.5 stars for this long, cozy fantasy novel. The first half is charming, if a little mawkish, but the second half is somehow both tedious and infuriating.

It’s about a middle-aged bureaucrat who serves and befriends his emperor, a powerful mage whose life is restricted and isolated to an inhuman degree. In the beginning we have Cliopher daring to make the presumptuous suggestion to this immensely remote figure that he might benefit from a vacation. Then there are the logistics of arranging such a preposterous thing, the wonder of a developing friendship, and the opening of possibilities.

That’s all pretty fun, but the novel goes downhill rapidly once, as a result of all this chumminess, Cliopher is promoted to an exalted position and this becomes the story of how amazing he is.

In the beginning Cliopher’s frustration with his provincial family arouses sympathy: they are resentful that he left home, dismissive of his ambitions, and willfully ignorant about his success. It’s a nice moment to see them first realize with amazement and delight just how high he has risen. Unfortunately, and rather inexplicably, his family’s ignorance persists so that Cliopher’s importance must be explained to them a second time, and then a third and fourth time, so that we get repeated scenes of Cliopher’s increasingly peevish hurt feelings at their obliviousness.

Similarly, the first time Cliopher publicly skewers an aristocratic bigot is satisfying. The next several times he delivers identical rants, in front of similarly slack-jawed audiences, are much less so. There are many more such repeated scenes. It feels like the author imagined several different versions of the scenarios she wanted, and then instead of choosing the best she just included all of them.

With the repetition comes a wild escalation of the book’s themes. The rational promotion of multiculturalism progresses from the ridicule of lazy selfish bigoted cosmopolitan aristocrats to the promotion of noble savage islanders. When one of the Cliopher’s clerks describes his tribe’s sacred tradition of ritual murder and cannibalism, everyone gets weepy and Cliopher solemnly intones, “It is never easy to be so different.”

At the start of the book Cliopher is the best secretary the emperor has ever had. By the end he’s being pronounced the most important statesman in history and credited with single-handedly transforming the world from a hellhole into a utopia complete with a universal basic income.

In regards to the magical elements, I rather like the way the author does not really explain “the Fall”, but I was disappointed to find that magical restrictions surrounding the emperor
Profile Image for Evenstar Deane.
34 reviews5 followers
November 4, 2022
This is a book about middle aged men with little action, no romance, and a lot of bureaucracy. Its the story of a man who dares to extend an act of friendship to his emperor. It’s the story of an emperor who was a god, learning to be a man. It’s the story of a man who dreams of building a government that serves the people, modeled on the ancient songs of his people. It’s the story of a man who is afraid he has given up his family and culture in pursuit of his dream. It’s the story of an emperor who encourages his friend to reach for everything. It is an amazing story that I had to re-read immediately.
There is some repetition, the reasons why his family doesn’t understand that he is in fact the second most powerful person in the world are heartbreaking the first time but made everyone seem a little dense by the third time.
The emperor has a secret about his past that is hinted at several times but I didn’t catch until I read the related short story “The Tower at the Edge of the World”.
I realized about a quarter of the way through that this story reminds me of C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series, which I also love.
I hope there is more to the story!
Profile Image for Jess.
277 reviews
December 4, 2021
This is a) the book I was most excited to read this year, b) the ONLY book I paid actually money for this year, c) my biggest disappointment of the year 💀 I'd be even more crushed if the relief at finally having skimmed the last 10% so I can get it off my Currently Reading shelf wasn't so great. (But it is omg I'm free I'M FREEEEEEEEE)

I feel a bit duped after seeing so many people sell this as one of the "greatest character-driven novels ever!" In fairness, I found the first part (and by part I mean like...the first 15% maybe? this is a LONGGGG book) to be exactly that—a beautifully, even masterfully, done character introduction. The initial building of Cliopher and his Radiancy's relationship was so gorgeously handled and brimming with potential. As a slow burn lover (romantic or otherwise) I was SO excited, looking at how much of the book I had left with eagerness, ready for some slow and steady and yummy progression.

And then.......like Icarus...........*mimes wings melting, tumbling to the ground...falling...falling.......for HUNDREDS AND HUNDREDS OF PAGES* 😔🔥

His Radiancy, who is, hands down imo, the most interesting character in this book, started to disappear for large swathes of it, only reappearing every so often to—like everyone else in this damn book—talk about how great Cliopher is. Cliopher who very quickly starts to feel less and less like an actual person and more just like a vehicle for Goddard to make Points™. The story began to really lose me when I realized entire scenes were being contrived just so Cliopher could come out of them looking Amazing—truly this book needed a [and everyone in the room applauds!] track. (I'm not even commenting on Cliopher's politics/the politics of the novel itself, to be clear—that's a massive and complicated can of worms.) It got so repetitive and boring that by like the fifth time I realized Goddard had trapped me in a scene where some asshole said something Wrong and Cliopher was about to start ranting heroically for 30 pages I just started skipping entire chunks on my kindle, and probs gave myself a repetitive strain injury in the process. Cliopher is Kind and a Genius and the Best—a perfect little paper mâché man, but to me, a relatively boring character to spend this much time with.

Aside from this, none of the many many side characters in this actually feel like individual characters. They all just feel like NPCs who are there to momentarily bump up against or cheer on Cliopher. And when they do bump up against him they often come across as being in the wrong, even if the book tries to paint them as valid. For ex. Cliopher has many family members and some of them resent him for spending all his time overworking himself instead of giving them more attention. (I think this is supposed to be like...his one and only flaw or something lol). But most of the time they just come across as provincial, unable to see (or just kept in the dark about) how vital Cliopher is to ~creating a better world~. Honestly, Cliopher's relationship with his family actually takes up the bulk of this book, and the fact that I just couldn't get myself to care about any of it is a huge part of why it didn't work for me. I couldn't tell you a single name of any of his family members, and none of their individual relationships stood out to me, because they weren't built to. It's just Family Member #1 who is a stand-in for this line of thought and Family Member #2 who is a stand-in for this line of thought, and so-on for almost every other character in this book.

I knew to some extent that this book would be a plotless Utopian Rumination, but I thought it would be that with incredible character work, and with Cliopher and His Radiancy's relationship at the center, developing all the while. Unfortunately it was not that, and I can't help feeling robbed after returning to the synopsis and thinking about how JUICY and and MOVING that relationship could've been. Alas, even if their "friendship" (👀) was actually more front-and-center throughout, it probs would've let me down on the angst factor, because this book really is for people who just want to read something overwhelmingly Nice.

tl;dr *slaps book* this book could've fit so much more His Radiancy in it. MORE EMPEROR, LESS THE HANDS PLZ. (but I guess...*points to title*....that one's on me 🙍🏻)
901 reviews31 followers
November 15, 2022

My life recently:
- new release in series by author I have been reading for years....dud.

- another new release in a series by author I have been reading for years......dud.

- see random rec on facebook page for a fantasy novel I have never heard of, by an author I have never heard of....may be Not Short? ...hm. Oh why not. Whatever. Anything for a giggle.

....start reading....keep reading....

...Knock back almost 1000 pages in one sitting....I think the sun set and rose somewhere while I was reading?

Just had the very odd experience of reading a story with a MC who shares exactly my beliefs and passions .

This is a big picture story with big picture world building and big picture plot as well as great characters. It is complex and nuanced. There are references to What Has Gone Before and the nine worlds. Just go with it.

Once you finish it, you are left with happy thoughts about 1. hunting down all the rest of her books, and 2, rereading this one.
Profile Image for sigaloenta.
485 reviews20 followers
June 22, 2021
I think the best description of this novel would be to say that it is not really a novel in the modern sense, but a Utopian tale whose primary objective is a disquisition on and illustration of ideal government, with the personal journey of the architect of this Utopia layered over it. It's very self-indulgent, and more than a little repetitive, especially in the second half.
Profile Image for Sky.
101 reviews2 followers
August 5, 2021
Do u like The Goblin Emperor

Do u wish The Goblin Emperor was 900 pages long

Well do I have the book for YOU!!!

This book had all my favorite things - bureaucracy, political machinations, elaborately described formal outfits, crying... YAS!!!

(my original review was just "hell yeah hell yeah hell yeah" but that doesn't really... review anything... not that what I have written is much more informative though tbh)
Profile Image for Manda Scott.
Author 23 books591 followers
November 16, 2021
Beautiful, brilliant, multi-coloured vision of a workable utopia

This is such a good book on so many levels. As others have said, it’s the perfect lockdown novel simply because it’ll leave you feeling as if you’ve been on holiday in the South Seas. And travelled a lot.
It’s a beautiful, literate, literary exploration of utterly whole, decent masculinity - the absolute inverse of the usual toxic masculinity paraded by almost every fantasy novel in print.
OK, there are some noted exceptions, but this is almost unique in that you can relax: there’s never going to be an occasion when power is misused/abused, where the bullies win, where the petty-minded idiots get their way and ruin the lives of our main protagonists. In this way, it’s diametrically opposed to The Goblin Emperor to which it seems to be being compared. I loved TGE, but it was a story of overt and devastating racism against a young man taking up the reins of power and his battle to create a decent court.
This is far more an exploration of what an intelligent man of integrity can do in ways that do not abuse power.
It’s also a really quite intriguing exploration of a different way of managing things. It doesn’t step out of the extractive capitalist paradigm - not quite - but it’s heading that way. We hear the arguments for and against universal basic income and see what happens when it’s applied. We see the sharp contrast between someone who comes from an indigenous culture 10,000 years old, where LaDonna Harris’s quartet of Relationship, Responsability, Reciprocity and Redistribution are active and alive, vs the places where hierarchies still hold and the web of life amongst those lower than the top have been shattered. We see the ways that life could be better - in this sense, it’s a utopian novel.
It’s also a glorious depiction of platonic love between two men. Given how rarely male authors manage to write the emotional depth of women in a way that’s remotely convincing (I could list on the fingers of one hand, the male authors whose women feel real), I’d really like to know what men feel about Cliopher Mdang - does he feel real? Do his relationships resonate? Do they feel plausible or is this how women would *like* men to be? That would be a fascinating topic of enquiry.

But in the meantime, this is a huge, vast, glorious panorama of a book. It made me laugh out loud. It made me weep. And I loved every sentence. Heading off to find everything else Victoria Goddard has written.
Profile Image for Doctor Science.
265 reviews16 followers
June 6, 2021
I liked this book VERY much, but I don't trust my liking. The protagonist is from a culture very like some of our world's Pacific Islands and has to struggle greatly with the pressures of assimilation, colonization, and so forth ... but the author does not appear to share these experiences, nor does she have acknowledgments etc talking about her sources or advisors. Since I don't share these experiences, either, I'm reluctant to trust that what she shows isn't appropriation or something else kind of sketchy.

So, I want to see what Pacific Islanders, people from subaltern or colonial diaspora groups, or at least PoC say about this book, before committing.
Profile Image for Para (wanderer).
359 reviews194 followers
August 17, 2022
DNF 42%. From everything I heard about it, this should have been just up my alley despite the length. A slow burn friendship between a god-emperor and his right hand man? Bureaucrat power fantasy? Yes. And initially, it went just fine, feeling a lot like taking your late-game fully-leveled-up Stardew Valley character on a vacation to Ginger Island. The worldbuilding is incredibly intricate and I loved Kip’s complex relationship with his culture. But it got old fast.

Since Cliopher, or Kip, has already accomplished nearly everything there is to accomplish, there are no real challenges, no conflicts, no sense of tension whatsoever, even of the small interpersonal kind. We are also shown quite forcefully and repeatedly how great and clever and flawless and always right he is, which doesn’t exactly endear me to a character. That, I think, was the main problem – what’s a cozy character-focused book where you don’t care about the protagonist? And being nearly 350k words, the percentage barely moves as you read. I was not really itching to pick it back up and besides, I’ve been told by people who liked it that some things that bothered me get worse in the second half. So I quit.

Enjoyment: 2/5
Execution: 3/5

More reviews on my blog, To Other Worlds.
326 reviews5 followers
September 6, 2021
I am clearly the odd one out here, but like… autocratic technocracy is a bad thing? The author expects us to believe this one guy is creating utopia and he hasn’t even abolished the death penalty? It’s all Ra Ra Democracy, but do we ever see some actual DEMOCRACY? (No spoiler to say no!) We never even see a republic! Are there unions?

And look, I’m sorry, but you can’t attribute this guy’s benevolent political genius to his Indigenous lifeways, engage in a fairly deep way with these traditions, borrowed from Polynesian cultures, and then not really deal with the GIANT EMPIRE he is a part of?

Also, man, I don’t actually think you get to have that cannibal character. I don’t think you get to do that at all!

And the MANY moments of “Cliopher is so underappreciated, poor Cliopher, let’s make him Bureaucratic Ayla and justify all his decisions in public AGAIN,” were clearly meant to be raspberry mousse for someone’s id, but uh, that’s not my id. He could have tried talking to people? Or not majorly messing up the governance of his home province, as, you know, happens under autocracies, however supposedly benign? And the repetition drove me up the wall.

Yet ANOTHER book where nothing at all was earned. And yes, I did notice the fatphobia and cissexism, thanks very much. Also the many copy-editing errors, especially in the first half of the book — just saying.
Profile Image for Lance.
13 reviews
June 21, 2021
I want to be clear that this book was brilliant. You can't look at the world Goddard has designed, the Characters and Bonds she has forged and not applaud. However, I found that at every turn there was a dripping faucet, a tiny something which dampened the experience.

Whether minor grammatical errors, long winding sentences, or the near unbearable drag of approbation towards the end (I get that he's done a lot but oh my god I don't need to hear him explain it to every cousin) I found myself wondering who edited this novel. I think it could have been half the length and twice as strong for it.

Regardless of this rating, if you are one less bothered by the things aforementioned, I highly recommend this book as a deeply diverse, warm one. Should themes of the cost of assimilation, tradition, community, family, and friendship interest you, then this is the book to pick up.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,682 reviews634 followers
January 31, 2023
Epic high fantasy isn't usually to my taste and my enjoyment of The Hands of the Emperor reminded me of why: I find it dull when a quasi-feudal system is treated as immutable. As long as the magical world has political change, though, I'm into it. One of my initial impressions of The Hands of the Emperor is that it's an optimistic mirror of my all time favourite The Gormenghast Trilogy. Both are set within an ancient absolutist regime bound by elaborate rituals, the apparent stasis of which is radically disrupted by the carefully planned actions of one functionary. Here, it's as if an older and wiser Steerpike and Titus Groan collaborate to undermine sclerotic old traditions and implement progressive reforms, rather than fighting to the death. While Gormenghast is a largely empty decaying ruin, the emperor's castle is bright and vibrant. The Gormenghast Trilogy is an extraordinarily poignant narrative of collapse; The Hands of the Emperor is one of transformation and restoration. Despite these similarities in setup, though, they are stylistically very different books. Although I liked The Hands of the Emperor very much, I doubt it will haunt my dreams as The Gormenghast Trilogy has.

The 900-page narrative follows Cliopher Mdang, also known as Kip, personal secretary to the godlike emperor and effective head of the world government, as he transforms the empire from within. His agenda is one of decolonisation, dismantling autocratic institutions, building public infrastructure, and, of particular note, implementing universal basic income. (There are some great discussions about the latter.) Although this is a world with magic of various kinds, the most fantastical element to me was the incredible success of these top-down reforms. Even with the support of the emperor, Kip comes off as a truly miraculous civil servant. I have various thoughts on this.

Ostensibly the concept has a strong air of Great Man history about it, given that Kip is stated to have entirely redesigned the government by himself. However, one of the particularly interesting and rather uncanny elements of world building concerns a magical cataclysm that broke time. If I was reading correctly, Kip worked on his government reform for a subjective thousand years or so while his family, on the other side of the world, experienced only decades. (I wondered what magic was doing to lifespans, although old age very clearly exists and even the emperor is subject to it.) Going back to The Gormenghast Trilogy, it's funny how Steerpike's malicious and meticulous destruction of an ancient regime feels superficially more plausible than Kip benevolently doing much the same thing. Ultimately, I found it wonderfully escapist to imagine that one intelligent and well-meaning person with sufficient time and magic behind them could remake a whole world for the better.

In addition to the fascinating and unusual political themes, The Hands of the Emperor distinguishes itself with excellent world building. The gentle pace of the plot leaves plenty of time for cultural details, which are carefully thought-through and make the world feel vivid. Kip's islander background is important to his beliefs and characterisation, as the reader gradually learns.

I may be giving the impression that this is a very solemn book, but that's not the case. It features some amusingly deadpan comedy and many joyful moments. The narrative is rich with art, music, and material details. Descriptions of sumptuous outfits, furnishings, and jewellery convey cultural and social meaning, as well as aesthetic pleasure. It speaks well of such a long novel that upon finishing it I was immediately eager to read the 800 page sequel! The world of The Hands of the Emperor is beguiling. I want to know more about its magic, politics, and history as well as what Kip and the emperor do next. If, like me, you wish epic fantasy included more utopian optimism and less wrangling over feudal kingdoms, I highly recommend giving this novel a try.
Profile Image for zjakkelien.
624 reviews19 followers
March 27, 2022
Oh my.
Despite the fact that I can see that this is not flawless, this is an unequivocal 5 stars for me.
I absolutely loved it. It has such heart, such compassion, such respect for people and the environment.
So yeah, it was long, but I would have loved to see it longer. Towards the end, some things were repetitive, but I didn't mind seeing it repeated. Perhaps Kip achieved a bit too much (we're going to have to put it down to weird time differences, because I don't see how he could have done all of that in a lifetime), but I adored the stories of his successes. I thought perhaps his Palace friends could have used a bit more page time and personality, but Kip was so magnificent, the Emperor was lovely and his family came through loud and clear. The Vangavaye-ve (I still have no clue how to pronounce that; helpfully, it is mentioned several times how it is pronounced in the wrong way) and its culture positively dripped off the pages.
And I just really loved Kip. His determination, his fire, his uncompromising honour, all wrapped up in an unassuming package.

If you want something fast-paced and action-packed, look elsewhere.
But if you want something immersive, with superb world-building, great heart and wonderful characters, take this! Come and take this. I would give it more than 5 stars if I could.
Profile Image for Alicia.
3,144 reviews35 followers
November 17, 2022



I can’t entirely explain why my ultimate comfort read is a 900 page book about a highly ranked government official slowly enacting sweeping societal reforms (like universal basic income), except that maybe I want to live in this world? I mean, it is also a book about a bunch of middle aged men and their friendships and their FEELINGS, which is also somehow a rarity in fiction. I mean, this book is not perfect: the stuff about the protagonist’s family and friends not understanding his job gets a little repetitive. And I don’t know if there are any issues with the depictions of the protagonist's minority culture, which I think is based on the Pacific Islands (and since this is clearly another world, if that matters), though I am a minority in some respects and think she nails the insider/outsider stuff. But it makes me cackle and it makes me cry and I love all these dudes and their need to be hugged.
Profile Image for ˗ˏˋ eg ˎˊ˗.
246 reviews87 followers
March 28, 2022
it says everything that I reread this brick of a book 2 months after finishing it & that now having finished it for a second time all I want to do is reread it AGAIN!! I would live in this book if I could
Profile Image for Jonah.
15 reviews1 follower
October 13, 2021
Yeah there are wizards and magic in this book but what really makes The Hands of the Emperor a fantasy is that it imagines a better, more just government emerging from an old one without bloodshed. It's like fantasy The West Wing except where the West Wing is whitewashing fan fiction about a real world war crime machine, The Hands of the Emperor is about a not real place so you the reader isn't complicit in any whitewashing when you enjoy it.

Also this book is about relationships that grow deeper and stronger through time. I really loved this book if that isn't clear.
Profile Image for c.a..
77 reviews3 followers
October 24, 2022
What a book! This will absolutely be on my year-end list of Favorite Books: '22 Edition, which I did not expect to say when I started it. It is indeed very long (the hardcover I checked out from the library is 900 pages and weighs over 3 pounds), but in the way that very long fantasy novels can manage sometimes, I think back on everything that happens in this book and feel like I've been on a journey. It's been a while since I've read a book that had me thinking that way, and I really enjoyed the ride.

Could it be shorter? Are there some redundant-seeming conversations, especially in the latter half? Does it feel, at times, extremely self-indulgent? Yes.

Do I mind? No, not at all.

In all honesty I cannot remember the last time I was so happy to just go along with wherever an author wanted to take me, through detailed descriptions of scenery, food, and clothing; through meditations on identity, and community, and home; even through the intricacies of bureaucracy, of all things -- where Goddard leads, I'll follow.

To that end this was also one of the most relaxing books I've ever read? It sounds silly to call a 900 page long fantasy about the slow progress of a changing governing system relaxing, but that's the word that kept coming up for me as I made my way through this book. It was a deeply relaxing, engaging, pleasant read, and I enjoyed it tremendously.
Profile Image for Kat Looby.
90 reviews1 follower
January 26, 2023
It's January 7th and I think I've just read the book I'll pick as my top for 2023. Until, of course I read the sequel and determine if it's possibly better.

Not only is this book an absolute delight, it is a masterpiece. It has all the feelings of an extremely good fanfiction. That might seem like an odd comparison, almost an insult, but it is truly one of the highest compliments I can think of.

I love fanfiction because often they are so full of soft, loving indulgence that you can barely contain your joy while reading them. Many of the good fanfics out there center around fans being tired of the hurt and pain and grief and loss in canon and ask themselves "what if everything just, worked out?", then they sit down and write 100,000 words of people taking care of each other and hugging and healing and recovery and fun. (Not ALL fanfiction, of course. But the best ones).

The Hands of the Emperor is exactly that. Someone described it as a book where "nothing bad happens", and it's true. Or, at least, nothing bad with lasting negative consequences. Now, you might be asking yourself (or me) "isn't that unrealistic? Bad things are a part of life." Well, yes. But is it more unrealistic to write a book where nothing goes terribly wrong then it is to write a book about space dragons? Wizard schools?? Ghostly apparitions of dead lovers upon the moors???

When I started reading it, I got to point 200ish pages in where it was clear the characters were misunderstanding each other. I put the book down for a minute and said to myself "it would be so nice if they would just talk to each other and then hug it out". Resigned to the fact that this would probably never happen, and that the characters would probably go on misunderstanding each other until something boils over at the last minute, I picked the up the book and kept reading. Not two pages later, the characters went "I think we're misunderstanding each other." And then TALKED IT OUT. I was floored. The scene was so wonderful and kind and heartfelt that it felt like magic. And it just, kept going!! Imagine, every time you're reading and you wished a character would just stand up for themselves and would receive justice, they did?? Every time you think "please, please, don't kill that character off" they don't! Every time you think "don't leave now, can't you see how hurt they are?" they come back!! And somehow, throughout all this magical everything-is-working-out-perfectly, the characters are still learning and growing and getting better. Your whole family doesn't have to die for you to have character growth - revolutionary.

This book has many many other things I love in it as well: a vague magic system that is not explained, a political system you don't really have to understand to know what is happening, and only vaguely is there a true plot. It is character driven and rich and heartfelt and true and, just, wonderful. It celebrates many often overlooked cultures. If you loved Moana, or Polynesian culture in general, book is for you. The outfits, the dances, the community, respect of tradition, the boats!! And, to top it off, this book is written by a woman who published it when she was 70. Incredible.
[EDIT: she is actually 40, google definitely has the wrong profile linked to this author.]

Two things I didn't love: one, none of the main characters are female. To be sure, there are many strong female characters in this book, and sexism isn't an issue really at all, but none of the main main characters are woman.
And two, towards the end there were a lot of monologues. I can't tell if there were too many, or if I was just tired because I had just read 600 pages in one sitting.

Also, I set my reading goal super low this year after feeling burnt out and uninterested in reading. I wanted to take the pressure off of striving and trying to hit the mark and just go back to actually enjoying reading, which used to be hobby and not a social accomplishment. The result has been that I feel like I have time to read long books, instead of trying to factor in if I can still meet my goal if I indulge in a book that might put me behind. I realized two things:
1) I read this book in only 5 days (all 1434 pages on my phone), and that is faster than some 300 pages books I've read.
2) I love long books. I love them. Why was I letting a goal, that I set (!!), stop me from enjoying one of my favourite aspects of reading?? Maybe, armed with this refreshing and earth shaking knowledge, I will allow myself to catch up on the Way of Kings by the illustrious Brandon Sanderson. Also books that I love, and that I haven't let myself read because I didn't think that I could meet my goal if I did. Foolishness. Thank goodness for personal insight and growth. All without my family dying, too!!
Profile Image for ivanareadsalot.
319 reviews52 followers
September 8, 2021
I really really wanted to love this book. Unfortunately, I grumbled more than I should have, which was a shame because it started off beautifully. So beautiful that I actually lost myself for hours on YouTube watching videos of the ocean, turquoise beaches and surfing, naturally.

I do understand that this is a fantasy novel so I'm not going to be a stickler about things like aspects of colonialism, assimilation and the kind of politics kicking around. I mean, Kip's choice to not sweat his name and curb his accent is a real time thing. Goddard's world included a panoply of diversity, a class system and the death penalty, and while Kip's ambition was to have a governing body comprised of an array of representatives, marginalization and overt prejudice hasn't disappeared, even with a black Emperor, and his brown-skinned bff as chancellor.

I'm not sure what Goddard wants us POC readers to garner from that observation.

Winning on ALL fronts is that the absolute ruler of the world is a smooth AF black mage. And his Second is from the islands?

Honestly, I could read that forever.

If only the 900 pages were of just that.

I loved everything about Kip. He was so sweet and I understood, intimately, what he endured during his family visits. I loved his Radiancy. He was so regally badass and lovely at the same time. I loved Kip's friends in the Palace of Stars in Solaara. I even loved the bureaucratic parlance.

What I really didn't love or understand, like at all, and which I will comment on, as this book is a character driven piece and it was a significantly weighty contrivance comprising roughly 2/3 of this book, was the family dynamics.

Basically, why were Kip's family, minus Gaudy, a bunch of ignorant AF jerks? And WHY did they persist in being so even AFTER they stayed with him in the Palace and watched him RUNNING THE GOVERNMENT, nevermind meeting and hanging out with his Radiancy? Like witnessing that bromance wasn't confirmation enough of Kip's importance?

Honestly, save for Buru Tovo, who legit made me feel like I had an ancestral dance within me to claim for my island, I was pretty much spitting nails at how callous Kip's family acted towards him, and I seriously almost dnfed at 57% and 90%-if you could believe that shit- for the same reason.

I don't understand the aunt Hilda part. Like at all. No one is coming into my house talking about my baby. That's not a thing.

Also, the islands were technologically connected and ruled by a trash bucket princess, so governance was not a foreign concept introduced to the barbaric Islanders by their civilized betters, while they ran around naked spearing things.

Where's the problem here? He left to pursue his dreams. He visits more than he should tbh. He lets you do you. And you have the audacity to blame his countenance for a 58-person common-decency fail? No, I don't think so, Goddard.

I'm taking it personally.

Actually 57, because Dora is legit.

Like, no one will ever misunderstand what you mean when you say you run the government... Of the fkin world... As in second-in-command... To the dude who's face is on the money. That you met. In his magical gorgeous palace.

Not only that! No one RELATED to you, ESPECIALLY your mother, will remotely respect your privacy enough to NEVER ask you to clarify what the FK your fancy ass title means. No matter how disinclined you are to discuss state secrets, or if some dirtbag royalist rage chucks all the official pronouncements about your important work into the sea. Your mother will wring out something worth gossiping about.

Because she wants to brag about how important her child is. To everyone. Because that's EVERY island mom in the history of the relatable world.

Yes. I get it. It's a work of fiction. But the characterization is flawed and noticing it, intrinsically, is like worrying a sore tooth.

This book started off sincerely lovely, and had some wonderful elements that I would have loved to explore further, but because I felt annoyed on Kip's behalf most of the book, I don't think it's something I would recommend at 900+ pages.

3 ⭐ for the pearls of pleasure, cultural pride and found-family peace I lived for while navigating this tome, within which I have determined that Goddard modelled family dynamics for 600 pages on a confusing mashup of Islander insularity and a sort of B-movie hillbilly family reunion happening in backwoods Virginia; the one where the non-overalls wearing cousin returns for a visit from hoity-toity New York.

If you do decide to give this book a shot, prepare to meet your biases.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Eva.
527 reviews12 followers
March 27, 2022
My alternative titles for this book include 'The Emperor's New Retirement Plan', 'Bureaucracy is the new Piracy', 'Man Good At His Job' and 'Watch as This Chronic Workaholic Learns to Find Reasonable Work-life Balance. Also, Cannibalism'.

Really though, this is a book about a secretary who extends a small gesture of kindness to his employer in a highly hierarchical and ritualised society, and accidentally sets into motions events that change the functioning of their world and maybe also ensure universal income in the process. It's about splitting one's heart into two in that moment of leaving home in search of one's dreams, about feeling unwelcome where one once belonged but eternally a foreigner in the place where one has moved, and about learning to reconcile the two. It's about middle-aged people encouraged to take stock of the work they've done and imagine how much they could still do, and also learning to take rest and maybe a compliment. Ultimately, it's 900 pages of watching a bureaucrat trying his hardest to make the world a better place, which is a premise that shouldn't work but that ended up in a lovely book that is funny, thoughtful, deep and just unspeakably kind.
Profile Image for Stella.
95 reviews6 followers
January 21, 2021
It was lovely. I read this pretty much straight through in two days and enjoyed it very much. It's a *nice* book, much like The Goblin Emperor, and though there were a couple instances of word usage that really didn't fit the worldbuilding I very much enjoyed the feeling this story gave me throughout. I would dearly love to read about what they get up to after the book, but even if the author doesn't write it, it's the kind of thing easily imagined in a fanfic way.
Profile Image for David H..
1,993 reviews19 followers
November 19, 2021
Despite a few flaws, I loved this book. It follows Cliopher Mdang, the secretary to the Emperor (which is in reality the second most powerful position in the imperial government), who decides to invite the Emperor to go on holiday in his home province. The consequences of that directly impact the entire rest of the book, and it's fantastic and pretty wholesome to boot. A main theme in the book is Cliopher (known as Kip to his friends back home) coming to terms with his personal and cultural identity. The author does a great job of exploring and reinforcing this theme. I was unsure about the storytelling in the first few chapters, but once it got going, I was hooked and simply couldn't stop. A couple notes, though: this book is not going to end where you think it will, and certain parts--especially near the end--were needlessly repetitive.

Highly recommended, especially if you ever wanted to see bureaucrats working hard during bureaucratic things.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
350 reviews22 followers
February 19, 2022
I don't even know where to begin. It was not what I expected; it was so much more than that.

I added this to my TBR as soon as I heard “Goblin Emperor feels” and it went beyond anything I expected, turning out to be one of those books that pierces your heart and touches your soul. For me, this is because a major conflict in the story revolves around how Cliopher/Kip left home to follow his dreams, much to the dismay of his entire family, who remain ignorant to the importance of his position. I found Kip’s reflections and interactions on this subject deeply moving and relatable, since I (though much younger and less accomplished than he) moved to the opposite side of the world and often ask myself the same questions Kip wrestled with.

If you like an exciting plot, this probably isn’t for you. If you like character studies, competent characters, political philosophy, and reflections on family and identity, you will likely appreciate this book.

Though I did wish some of the characters were fleshed out more, I loved reading about Kip and the Emperor, and my favorite scenes were those which featured His Radiancy.
Nearer to the end of the book, it did get redundant at times, though if you enjoy Kip as a character, you may be able to forgive the book this, as I did. In other places it felt preachy, although this may have been meant to illustrate how Kip was inclined to long speeches when he lost his temper.
I loved that he was a middle-aged character shown to have fought hard for his principles and maintained his integrity. I think I enjoyed the first half of the book more, likely because we see more of His Radiancy, but I have obtained the suggested reading order of this author’s books and I will be making my way down the list.

I’m trying to collect my many thoughts and feelings (as this was quite a long book, though I had no complaints about that) and that likely leaves this reading jumbled, so I will hopefully return to it at a later time.
Profile Image for ♥Xeni♥.
1,046 reviews74 followers
April 1, 2022
I am still so emotional over this book, so all I'll say for now is: this is the most amazing book I've ever read. I loved every single aspect of it. It feels like it was personally written for me, it resonated with my soul that much. I need to go buy a physical copy and reread it.

Yes, it took me only 4 days to read this 1,100 page epic. It was that good.


Longer review: It's so hard to sum up my thoughts about THotE. I got a hardcover copy for Christmas and I've slowly been rereading it because now I can savor more of the moments. It's incredible how many different plot threads, characters, and healing aspects of this world Victoria can balance at the same time to write such a beautiful story out of it.

Is this story long? Yes. Will you probably read it very fast? If you like comforting reads in which you spent a lot of life with one person, seeing them life and interact with people, and ultimately make the world a better place, yes, you will.

This is just the best slice of life to follow. Kip (Cliopher) is not just the Head Secretary of the Last Emperor of Astrandalas, he's also an Islander who knows the spiritual and magical ways of his ancestors. Though he does spend most of his life (and this book) keeping those two firmly separate, Kip is courageous and mischievous and wants more than being just a secretary. And to get more, to get true friendship and feel accepted by his family, he needs to find a way that is both Islander and Secretary, which is ultimately what this story is about.

But that's not all. Because of it's length we get to spend a lot of time exploring the world with Kip, if only from his reports and recollections of the Aftermath. We get to know the Emperor and tease so much foreshadowing (backshadowing?) about the most powerful man (no longer God) in the Worlds.

Even though 900 pages seems like a lot, there is still so much more to explore in this land, the kingdoms, time periods, the people after this book ends. I am so glad that Victoria is constantly writing more stories and fleshing out the world as the stories need, and not dumping it all into this tome as so many modern authors like to do.

This is the most feel-good, heart-felt, touching story I've read in a long time. It will always hold a precious place in my heart.
Profile Image for Bethany.
651 reviews5 followers
June 2, 2021
What a truly exceptional book!!! This book won’t be for everyone but OH BOY was it for me right now. A book very light on plot but extremely heavy on both character and world building. I am so delighted that I picked it up because of a tweet.

One of the things I liked best about this book was how it built the world around the characters. Some authors really spoon-feed you information, and some books just trust the reader to keep up. Usually I like the first option because the second option can get really frustrating, but this author did a magnificent job. The world doesn’t need to be explained because the characters know what happened and because the world isn’t the point! The point is people, and that was so delightful. I loved trying to figure out a timeline (HA) and what The Fall was and all of the important bits of backstory, and when they were eventually explained in more detail it just felt satisfying.

This is such a long book, and I was so nervous that it wouldn’t be able to keep my interest, but I was so wrong. The first half or so deals with the Emperor and Kip – two people who try and forge a friendship among ritual and taboo and politics. The second half largely dealt with Kip trying to show everyone (and himself!) that he hadn’t left his culture behind. The characters were a sheer delight – one lonely emperor newly determined not to let this be all his life is, and one extremely competent secretary determined to change the world for the better.

This book just /feels good/. Good things happen to good people, bad people get what they are due (but really, they are all just people in the end). It’s about love in all its forms – fealty, parental, friendship, familial, duty, self love. It’s about all the ways people try to show love and how love can change a person and from a person – the world!

It is really one of the most satisfying books I have read in a long, long time. I can’t wait to get the sequel and read everything Victoria Goddard has ever written!
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