Recent reading: The Hands of the Emperor

Okay, so, this one is definitely going on my Top Two for 2020 list. In fact, I should take a stab at compiling a top ten list for 2020, just to see if that is possible. I read so few new-to-me books this year, it might be tricky. If I do a Top Whatever list at all, though, this book will certainly be on it. I read this as a reward for finishing the draft of Tarashana, and I am slowly re-reading it now.

900 pages, wow. And yet, I kept feeling mildly disappointed when the story skipped lightly over a couple years here or there. Definitely not too long. The pacing didn’t even seem slow, although actually I suppose it was.

Things to know about this story:

A) Nothing terrible happens. The story does become intense at times. Almost all the intensity has to do with relationships that are fundamentally becoming more solid over time.

B) The setting is superb. Want a story with a non-European setting? Here you go. Also, Goddard is magnificent with description.

C) No romance. Lots of friendships and lots (and lots) of family. Also, culture clash adds considerable complexity, another feature that is beautifully handled.

D) A fantastic main character. Cliopher is a genuine Great Man, who re-shapes the world over the course of the book. Unassailable integrity, diplomatic genius, vision, empathy, plus enough sheer nerve to invite the Sun-on-Earth to his home for a vacation.

E) A slowly unfolding backstory. A whole lot happened before this story opens. Cliopher is not a young man. We gradually hear more about his earlier life as we move forward in the main story. Goddard works all that backstory in so smoothly that it does not interfere with — in fact, enhances — the main storyline.

Overall conclusion: People, listen you have got to read this book.

Oh, fine, let me see. All right: if you love the Foreigner series, you have to try this. That’s the closest I can come. Except this one has fewer crises where anyone is shooting at anyone else.


Suspension of disbelief gets a trifle strained here and there. In particular, Cliopher’s immediate family and closest friends remain unaware that he is the second most powerful man in the empire, even after:

  1. The emperor personally says, in their hearing, that Cliopher is the most important figure in the government.
  2. Cliopher’s nephew starts working for him, and knows with total clarity that Cliopher is this important. Even after that, the nephew’s mother, Cliopher’s sister, does not realize this.
  3. Halfway through the book, that sister and Cliopher’s mother and others are visiting and the sister says, in dawning comprehension, “Cliopher! Are you RUNNING THE GOVERNMENT?” And a friend whoops with laughter and says, “Are you just now realizing that?” Yet,
  4. Years later, Cliopher’s best friends back home still don’t have any idea he is important.

At that point, you just have to let this important, central, crucial relationship-building plot point go because there’s no way to believe it. A fig leaf is offered to explain this. That doesn’t make the situation actually believable (at all) but it helps a little.

Despite that quibble, this is definitely a wonderful book. After I finish re-reading it, I will certainly go on with others of Goddard’s books. In fact, I can’t wait.

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16 thoughts on “Recent reading: The Hands of the Emperor”

  1. It’s competence porn with slice-of-life sometimes, I loved it, too. And she just released a follow-up for Artorin over New Years ! I went on read the Greenwing and Dart books, which I enjoy a lot too – tho they are not set on Zunidh, so none of the people in Emperor have shown up so far (I’m on the last two books of five – not sure if the series ends there).
    Thanks for that recommendation and I wish you and yours a Healthy New Year!

  2. Yes! I too discovered this in 2020 and absolutely loved it. I had the same sorts of quibbles as you did, but still was so captivated by the way she handled power and culture. Totally loved. I did try the Greenwing and Dart but couldn’t get into it. Lo also the power of the internet, I wrote to Victoria Goddard to tell her how much I enjoyed Hands of the Emperor and she said she’s working on a sequel. :)

  3. This sounds so up my alley and so what I want to read exactly right now that I just bought it. (I was already on kindle buying the sequels to M.C.A Hogarth’s Earthrise, which I enjoyed every bit as much as her Dreamhealers series. (Earthrise is 99 cents at the moment, if anyone is interested.) Now I can’t decide which to read first!)

  4. I am so glad your commenters suggested, and you promoted this.
    I have been in a complete nearly non-stop reading fog for four days, enjoying this and the short sequel, and it’s marvellous!

    It also means I didn’t get to start proofreading yet, as I had intended for this New Year’s long weekend. I’ll get to start on that next weekend; I just couldn’t put this book down.

    The one thing that bothers me, among the talk of time being disturbed and running differently in different places, and people being uncertain about how much time has passed where, is the lack of clear effect on people.

    In the new capital town apparently a thousand years have passed; in the palace a hundred (or hundreds?) between the Fall and the restabilization after the Emperor awoke, and in Cliopher’s homeland a few years during the disruptions after the Fall, and a few decades since the stabilisation. Still, though Cliopher lived in the palace for much of that time, he has apparently not aged much faster than his schoolfriends who stayed at home. The emperor has slept for a hundred years in a magic coma, or a thousand, while Cliopher was a junior clerk before and during the fall, and trying to go home sometime after the fall, a trip which apparently took years; and then returning to the capital and going back to being a junior clerk before the Emperor woke up (i.e. sometime during those 100 or 1000 years), and rising through the bureaucracy after the Emperor woke up, after which the time distortions were eventually mostly stabilized though not completely. Over the last decades in the palace he’s been creating laws and regulations that have wrought enormous societal changes (in a few decades, or maybe centuries, in some places), and still he is not ready for retirement yet, though approaching that age – just like his schoolfriends are around that age (and I get the impression retirement age in his hometown is fairly young, as they are planning quite active retirements). Still I got the impression several times that Cliopher has been working on improving the government for a hundred years; before, during and after the Fall (with one, probably several years long, interruption for his trip home), and with more success after the restoration when he became the Emperor’s secretary. He mentions writing his family each month during the Fall, for years, before resigning and going on that trip home. He also mentions writing them much more often than he got letters back, after, which was because time went faster for him than for them. So then shouldn’t he have aged years faster than his family and friends?
    This appears to conflict with the discussion and show of hands in the last part of the book, forty people or so sending him one letter a month, and him enjoying reading the letters from home that arrive nearly every day but not having time to write back to more than a few a month – apparently after the awakened Emperor stabilized things and put the Lights in place, time is now running parallel again between the palace and his homeland.

    When they look out of the palace windows to the town, did/does everyone look like a speeded-up blur, if time in the town moves 10x faster than in the palace?

    The uncertainty of time, because of the breaking of the magic, is mentioned several times – that’s also why things like the Emperor’s coma are mentioned as being 100 or 1000 years long. But his aunt and sister, who were adults at the Fall, are still running their districts in the present day, and though they have aged decades they aren’t 100+ years old. So maybe time didn’t go so fast in their districts, but that still doesn’t explain how those who live in the palace, where time apparently did fly, are still aging at more or less similar rates – the age difference between the Emperor and his sister has not suddenly increased, and that between him (who was in a magical coma or stasis for 100 years, so that might explain him not aging) and his favorite guard commander, who was with him from the start, both before and after the coma has also not suddenly jumped 100 years – the guard commander is still hale and hearty and commanding the imperial guard in the new situation.

    In the sequel the Emperor’s age gets complicated further; he was 16 when he was exiled, 17 when he escaped the tower to become a wandering poet and adventurer. IIRC he was not yet 20 when the magic snatched him back to become Emperor (he must have had a lot of adventures in a short time, and wrote about them and got them published!).
    Then I think he had 13 years as Emperor before the Fall, then the magical coma for 100 or 1000 years, then (at least) 17 years of being Emperor after he woke up (seems short to me), which he counts as being 1030 years. So he’s 50? Is Cliopher younger or much older?
    The whole group of friends seem around that age, at least late forties to maybe in their late sixties, and I just can’t reconcile their ages with whatever the author mentions about the temporal distortions.

  5. Hanneke, yes, I just decided that time moved differently via personal perception versus some sort of hard-to-define objective reality. Cliopher himself didn’t seen able to tell whether his jouney home took months, years, decades, or even centuries. I think perception of time was both uncertain and objectively vague.

    And no rush! February, March, whenever!

  6. Ah, I hadn’t intended to go off on that tangent – like you I just decided to accept and ignore it.

    I’d intended to comment on the way Cliopher’s friends and family keep trying to disbelieve and diminish his accomplishments. This looks to me rather like a dynamic that’s part of Dutch norms too; not exactly the same, but stemming from the same ‘egalitarian’ roots.
    The norms here say that one shouldn’t brag; this causes some cultural conflict with the Moroccan-origin rap and street culture among some younger urban people.
    There are 3 common sayings in Dutch used for people who seem too ambitious:
    – Act normal, that’s quite crazy enough;
    – High trees catch a lot of wind;
    – Don’t stick your head above the mowing level (if you try to appear better than others you’ll get mown down to the same height as the rest of the lawn).
    It’s a complaint that is regularly uttered by ambitious people that the Dutch do not appreciate excessive ambition (monetary, social or power), and will try to take anyone who thinks they’re better than others down a peg. We tend to think a good work-life balance is much more important than becoming very rich or powerful.

    It’s one of the reasons the prime minister gets photographed biking to work by himself or with a colleague, just like ordinary Dutch people do; the king and queen do likewise (on special occasions), and all three princesses bike to school every day just like all the other high school kids do over here. They need to show they’re ordinary people too, just like everyone else, to keep a positive connection with the people they (will) govern.
    (The other reason is to promote people cycling as a transport option, to impress on everyone that a car is not a status symbol as powerful people cycle too – because more people cycling more of their short trips and thus driving less, especially in and around town, has tremendous positive effects on the country, both economically, health-wise, socially and environmentally.)

    Anyway, this appears the same dynamic going on with Cliopher not wanting to “brag” when they take what he says about his accomplishments as jokes, and when they *all* try to ‘take him down a peg’ or ‘cut him down to size’ when his clothes are more costly and different than what is usual in his hometown.
    It’s the flip side of an egalitarian society like that; there are no great inequalities that hurt the poor and powerless, people stand together and help one another, but it’s hard to stand out as excellent without alienating people.

    After having been mercylessly teased and not taken seriously for more than five years in his youth, for wanting something no-one else did and repeatedly failing; then getting it, going away and feeling both homesick, denied his identity, and as if his quest to make the world better is not going to work out, stuck as a junior clerk that no-one wants to listen to; then to have that whole difficult years-long trip home where he survived mountain bandits and several typhoons in a tiny boat, twice having to start over on an empty atoll with nothing but his necklace (there were two chips in the obsidian, one for each time he had to start anew with that tiny sharp sliver as his only tool) – then he comes home after years of such desperation, and for everyone else only two ordinary years have passed. They are preoccupied with grandma’s death and not interested enough in him to ask any questions about what happened to him – they have no idea how many years of trouble he’s been through, but try to fit him in neatly into his old hole in the fabric of their ordinary and uneventful lives.
    And under all that societal and familial pressure to fit in, he does so – he doesn’t want to ‘rock the boat’ and alienate himself from them by standing out too much, when they don’t give any indication they might want to weave his strange, exotic and exiting tale into the fabric of their community.
    So he doesn’t feel like he fits in with them anymore and he leaves again, but the pattern has been set: he doesn’t want to lose his connection with them so he takes care to keep within the place they leave for him within the pattern of their lives. That space is increasingly ill-fitting with his actual life and accomplishments, so it both becomes harder for him to communicate about them without “bragging”, and for them to see from the ‘modest’ hints he gives that they need to adjust their view of him. They take his hints (or even plain but short mentions) of what he’s done as jokes – a way to gently warn someone who’s getting ‘uppity’ that they risk social censure for ‘bragging’, pretending to be better than others; he takes that warning clearly and chooses not to explain further and risk that censure – his connection to his home, his family and friends is too important to risk, even if the box they put him in is increasingly stifling.

    I can even see that dynamic playing out after his family’s visit (though their new view of him is a bit too strongly suppressed in my view as well) – okay he was busy standing in for important people during that crisis, but that can’t be the normal situation, it’s just that as the secretary you know what the boss was working on and continue with the orders the boss was planning, until the boss gets better. Besides if he was the boss and could organise his own time, he’d not be letting his family down so often. Him being important in his own right just doesn’t fit the place and image they have for him in their heads, and that visit was something out of the ordinary, so once they return to their ordinary lives that old pattern of thinking reasserts itself, especially since he thinks they get a lot of information on what he’s doing from the proclamations, so he doesn’t mention those things in his letters – that would be ‘boasting’, emphasising how important you are: not done among good people!

    That self-abnegating modesty, not upsetting society’s expectations of one’s place in it despite feeling stifled by the too-small box (and thus escaping elsewhere to give full rein to one’s capacities, while still now and then submitting to the family dynamic for the sake of the emotional bonds), was perhaps slathered on a bit too strong, but not as unlikely in my view of the world as it apparently was in yours!

  7. Allan Lawrence Shampine

    I agree with Hanneke. I’m only halfway through (and loving it!) but I found the family and social interactions very believable. (Incidentally, my wife is of Danish descent and speaks Danish, so there may be some overlap in my own cultural circle with Hanneke’s.)

  8. Really enjoying the book so far. It’s interesting to see a character arc of someone trying to walk away from power in a responsible fashion. The opposite of the usual.

    Also, like Hanneke, I find the family dynamics relatable, which may be because my wife is also, as she puts it, “of good, solid Danish peasant stock.”

  9. The “also” in the last sentence was a mistake. Dutch and Danish are not the same, of course: I was trying to refer to some common cultural views.

  10. Hi Allan, the “also” is quite relatable. I just nodded at your wife’s saying. The Dutch and Danish ‘national psyche/character’ are quite closely related!

  11. Okay, finally responding to your long comment, Hanneke —

    Yes, I basically got all that from context in the novel, although it helps quite a bit for you to pull this cultural attitude out and put it into a different real-world context, too, so thank you for your very long comment, which I appreciated a lot even though it’s taken so long for me to respond to it.

    I still don’t believe in the best friend believing that Cliopher is “just a secretary” toward the end, and some other things seem almost as unbelievable, but okay. I will also add — I should have stressed this more in the post — I did think Goddard did a very good job selling this disconnect between Cliopher’s actual status and his perceived status at home. I don’t think ANYTHING could have made me totally believe it, and I still don’t, but I very much appreciated some of the wonderful scenes that resulted from that disconnect. I am very much looking forward to the direct sequel.

  12. Finally finished and can come back and read everyone’s comments!

    The strange passage of time didn’t really bother me: I just hand-waved it and didn’t think about it too much. (Thought it may have been when she realized that Cliopher simply hadn’t had enough time to completely reform the economies and governments of an entire world, so decided to give him a couple of extra centuries!)

    The family response just got hammered over the head a few too many times: I would have believed it if there had been two or three scenes but not the six or seven we get! Totally agree with Hanneke’s commentary, though: the psychology of it makes perfect sense, and the character growth we see in Cliopher in response to it is in all ways wonderful.

    This is self-published, right? (It would be shocking if a publisher had allowed that many typos!) I was thinking as I was reading that it could have used a stronger editorial hand, but at the same time I’m glad I was able to read it in this state. It didn’t need to be 900 pages long (900? really? did you get it in a printed version? I can never judge length in e-books because I set the font so large that all my books are thousands of pages long!), but an editor would have shortened Cliopher’s rants and might have eliminated some of the repetitions of his story, might have tightened up that amazing ceremony at the end, might have cut out some of the multiple dramatically ironic moments when people who don’t know who he is talk about him in the third person. Maybe the book doesn’t need all of that, but I’m glad I got to read it all.

    Thanks for the link to the sequel, Estara! Will be downloading that shortly. (After I do some of Rachel’s proofreading, of course. Ahem.)(You should never have told us about this book, you realize!)

  13. I loved this book, too. Agreed with basically all the commentary—the time dilation made sense to me as just a weird magical thing, but I wish the family’s understanding of his changed status had just STUCK after the third or fourth time. Everyone was gossiping about him so much, but no one tried to explain to the others what was really going on (and Gaudy’s letters home surely ought to!). But the emotional payoff was so good that I really didn’t mind.

    I WAS bothered by the implication that all of Cliopher’s work to decentralize government resulted in…government being consolidated in his hands instead. He’s good and efficient and incorruptible etc, but still one man ought not represent executive, legislative, and judicial branches (as he does in the epilogue). I would have liked to see more movement toward an independent judiciary before he retires, at least!

    But that said, there were so many moments that took my breath away. Intense beauty, intense emotional connections, that whole amazing scene where he is bound to his lord AND his community through the Viceroyalty. The early scene with the Moon Lady, and the later scene with Buru Tovo and the fire dance. The repetition of language is incredibly important for Cliopher culturally and I guess I can see the repetition of driving things into his family’s heads as echoes to that. I also really appreciated the scenes where he AND his loved ones got to talk over their hurt, open their hearts and explain things… even if Cliopher seemed to be the only one who had lasting realizations and emotional change out of those convos!

    And NOW I can start on Tarashana.

  14. Mary Beth, that’s a really, really good point about power becoming more concentrated in Cliopher’s hands rather than less concentrated at all. I totally missed that. Maybe we will see something like that in the direct sequel.

    The scene with the Moon Lady was really a little over the top for me. I liked the fire dance and the viceroyalty ceremonies much better.

  15. One of the special pleasures of Hands of the Emperor is Cliopher’s discovery, late in the story, that the failure of his friends and family to grasp the magnitude of his achievements is, in considerable measure, his own fault. In his adamant determination to avoid the temptation to corruption in government, he has refrained as far as possible from interfering in the administration of his home province by its hereditary princess (an incompetent dingbat he tries to keep from mismanaging the province too badly, so that he is particularly sensitive to appearances of interference). It turns out that in trying not too interfere more than necessary, he has failed to notice that the princess has not had the Imperial proclamations published within the province, and this is why his friends and family have not seen the official announcements of his greatest achievements and promotions. It is characteristic of Cliopher that “while his long-held views of his family disintegrated inside him”, he responds by laughing at himself.

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