Most of the time, books come into your life in the usual ways—a friend recommends one to you, or you browse through the shelves at your local bookstore deliberately looking for something that will catch your eye, or you see a new release advertised somewhere and decide to give it a shot.
But every once in a while, that small moment of serendipity slams into you like a lightning strike and a clap of thunder—you overhear a title, or you catch a glimpse of a cover, and you are gripped instantly with the knowledge that this is going to be one of those books, one of the ones that change you, that leave you better than you were before you read it: A better writer, or a better reader, or a better person, or… just nebulously, undefinably better—more healed, more loved, more whole.
That’s what happened to me with The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard earlier this summer. Since then, I have spent months begging everyone I know to read that book, usually while shaking them by the front of their shirts and gently frothing at the mouth. Or gripping their faces and staring deeply and intensely into their eyes, twigs sticking out of my hair like I have just stumbled out of the woods. Or—well, you get the picture.
In my defense, The Hands of the Emperor is, and I mean this sincerely, the best book I have ever read. I am a better person for reading that book. It filled my soul up to the very brim with light, and it held my heart gently in its two hands and did things to my emotions that I don’t even have the language to describe. But even as I was falling so madly in love with that book (as documented in my initial liveblogging thread on twitter), I had no idea what joys were yet awaiting me beyond it.
Dear reader: Do you trust me? Then take my hand and let me guide you on this journey. It is a most wonderful journey—there’s beautiful magic and splendid worldbuilding and fantastic characters; there are dragons and a dungeon crawl through a magical puzzle-labyrinth and a baby unicorn the size of a cat. There is gloriously socialist government reform and implementation of universal basic income; infamous treasonous poets whose songs everyone secretly loves even though they are extremely banned; sweet, kind men trying hard to be good and the kickass women they adore—not just lovers, but family members, mentors, companions. And most of all, the core thread running through every book in the series: the depiction over and over again of deep, meaningful, intense friendships profound enough to change the course of history.
Welcome to the Nine Worlds.
To date, Victoria Goddard has published well over a dozen works (novels, novellas, and short stories) within the milieu of the Nine Worlds, which means it can be tricky to figure out a good entry point—and that’s even without getting into the complexity of the ways in which the component sub-series interlink. The Nine Worlds does the same thing that the Discworld novels often do, with familiar characters reappearing throughout the books, sometimes merely as an offhand mention, other times as main characters. This is great, because the characters in Goddard’s work are so compelling and endearing that it is heartwrenching to leave one series and start another one with new characters that you don’t know or love just yet—but then one of them will mention Emperor Artorin or quote a Fitzroy Angursell poem, and an unspeakable elation will fill your heart to see those familiar names. It feels like walking into a party that you expected to be all strangers, but then unexpectedly spotting an old friend across the crowded room.
I have picked out my four top choices for good entry points into the series (with a bonus fifth “maximum gremlin option”), so let’s jump right into it, because I desperately need to tell you about the best boy in the entire world.
(Fair warning: It is unbelievably hard for me to talk coherently about these books, so please mentally append seventy-four crying emoji and six lines of “ASGHJKGHJKLGH?????” to every paragraph so that you will have an approximation of my emotional state, okay? Great, thanks!)
Oh god. Oh heck. Where do I start? How can I even begin to put into words what this book means to me and how kind and gentle and loving it is?
The Hands of the Emperor is about Cliopher Mdang—secretary to his Radiancy the Sun-on-Earth, the Last Emperor of Astandalas—and the great works of kindness and mercy and justice that he brings to the world. But of these works, the one that ripples out farthest of all is not the first one he accomplishes in the service of his beloved lord, nor is it the largest or the grandest or most splendid one: At the very beginning of the book, filled with love and concern for his lord (and aware that asking this question of the man who is supposed to be a living god is tantamount to treason or heresy), Cliopher extends a tentative invitation for his Radiancy to accompany him on vacation to his homeland, the remote and beautiful island archipelago of the Vangavaye-ve.
This one small kindness—this first halting step beyond devotion and duty into genuine friendship—shakes the world to its foundations.
Basically, it’s Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor (fealty, ethics, loyalty, the joy of serving a worthy and honorable lord), meets The West Wing (liberal politics, conversations in hallways, the long slow process of making the world better by increments, and the quote: “Do you have a best friend? Is he smarter than you? Do you trust him with your life? That’s your chief of staff.”), meets Moana (leaving home to follow the call of a powerful dream, returning home to bring back the dream and the fruits of your labor to your people; community and family; a solo journey across the sea mirrors an internal journey of personal identity).
It is my favorite book in the entire world, hands down.
I don’t cry at books, as a rule, but The Hands of the Emperor made me absolutely weep at more than a dozen different scenes—proper weeping, with tears and snot pouring down my face so profusely that I had trouble breathing. Not because anything shocking or tragic or hurtful happened; these were tears of pure gratitude, joy, catharsis, release, compassion. I cried because I know so well what it’s like to spend your whole life yearning for someone to See you and Understand you, and I know how piercing the relief is when someone finally does. That’s what the book is really about: It’s about how easy and effortless it can be to let your one special person know you completely—and, at the same time, how difficult and vulnerable it can be to face the prospect of letting your family and friends know you like that too.
Throughout the book, Cliopher is struggling to balance and reconcile two divergent callings: the longing he has for his homeland and his culture and their familiar way of life, versus his love for his lord and his fiery determination to fix the world and reform the government so that his Radiancy can retire and finally be free from all the shackles miserably binding him to power he does not want and did not ask for. Cliopher works harder than perhaps anyone else I’ve ever seen in a fantasy novel before—not for reward or personal glory, but because he believes passionately in something and he is willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears to make it a reality, even if it takes a decade or more of slogging through politics and bureaucracy.
Except almost all the politics happens off-screen. That’s fine, though, because the book isn’t really about the politics. People who love Becky Chambers books for their focus on character over action will be delighted with this one—because what it’s actually about is striving, and identity, and trying to dream justice and goodness into reality, and about how Cliopher’s stubborn perseverance is misunderstood the entire time (or mocked, or scolded, or ferociously opposed) by everyone except the one person who sees him as he truly is, who understands him wholly and completely and profoundly, and who can hear the true song of his innermost heart: His Radiancy, his lord, the star that guides Cliopher’s life.
The Hands of the Emperor reads like the best kind of slowburn coffeeshop AU fanfic, if by ‘coffeeshop’ you mean ‘government bureaucracy’. It’s structured rather like a romance novel, if the romance novel was 900 pages long and completely platonic (to wit: instead of deeply emotional, plot-relevant sex scenes, there are deeply emotional, plot relevant handholding scenes). However, although it is platonic, it is not less intense in the depiction of the feelings present in this relationship. One of my favorite things about this book, in fact, is that on multiple occasions both his Radiancy and Cliopher—and the people around them—explicitly use the word love to describe the feelings that the two of them have toward each other, yet that label is never automatically equated with sex and no one thinks it is at all scandalous or shameful for them to feel that way. They just… love each other. They love each other so much.
This is absolutely my top choice for the best entry point to the Nine Worlds books—it does throw a lot of information at you all at once without slowing down to explain it, and it drops a bunch of subtle references to characters and events from the other books, but there is no better choice for an immediately immersive experience. If you read any of the books on this list, please, please read this one. The Hands of the Emperor is pure exhilarating magic from start to finish. It is simply incomparable: marvelous, heartfelt, and devastatingly kind, both unassuming and magnificent.
“The Moon said, ‘Don’t be absurd! What can those things mean to him?’
“And I said, ‘They mean the common and ordinary good of duty honorably fulfilled, of love occasionally accompanied by quarrels, of friendships that will not fail, of a home filled with laughter and music and family.’
“She said, ‘What can those things mean to the Lord of the Rising Stars?’
“And you said, ‘Everything,’ and came with us.”
Stargazy Pie (Book 1 of Greenwing & Dart)
Wait, are you still here? You didn’t stop there to go buy The Hands of the Emperor? ….Huh. Ok. Weird.
Nah, I’m just joking with you! Clearly you’re still here because you want to hear about more intensely emotional friendships, right?!? Hell yeah! Well, lucky you, “intensely emotional friendships” is one of Victoria Goddard’s favorite things to write about! Well, that and astounding amounts of dramatic irony, but we’ll get to that a bit later.
Let me introduce you to Jemis Greenwing, one of the runners-up for the “Best Boy In The Entire World” championships (Cliopher Mdang takes the gold medal effortlessly every year, so competition for the silver and bronze is heated). I love the Greenwing & Dart series almost as much as I love The Hands of the Emperor, which means that I am slightly more capable of being coherent about it.
You know all those cozy mysteries that take place in quiet villages in the English countryside? Like the ones where every week There Has Been A Murder, Oh No, and the local hobbyist mystery-solver has to take a break from whatever their actual quaint village job is to investigate? The Greenwing & Dart series is that but with magic, plus a strong flavoring of Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog (in terms of humor, hijinks, and dashing young men just home from university).
Or… at least that’s what it sets out to be in Stargazy Pie. With every subsequent book, it gets deeper and more complex, until suddenly you find yourself absolutely enchanted as you watch Jemis using intense literary criticism to analyze a poem and break out of jail. The things you didn’t know an English major would come in useful for, am I right? Jemis is a very Genre Savvy kind of protagonist who is occasionally and delightfully exasperated about how Plot seems to keep happening to him whether he wants it to or not. Greenwing & Dart, aka “Everything Happens So Much All The Time: A Collection of Essays by Jemis Greenwing”.
Hm, what’s that? Why was Jemis in jail? Oh, never mind that, it happens on a few different occasions—the boy is forever getting captured or kidnapped or waylaid by highwaymen or accosted on the street or thrown in various cells. Did you miss the thing about “Everything Happens So Much All The Time”? On one occasion, he’s arrested because there’s a rumor that he murdered the infamous revolutionary poet Fitzroy Angursell who had been disguised as a dragon. This is naturally foolishness, of course, because revolutionary poets don’t go around shapeshifting into mythic beasts on a whimsy only to get murdered by a Local Nice Young Man out on his morning jog. It’s just amazing how these wild rumors happen, isn’t it? That’s quaint small towns for you.
But oh, the characters and relationships! As in all of Victoria Goddard’s books, the emphasis on heartfelt friendships shines brightest of all. And she is so good at writing friendship groups—there’s always a pitch-perfect balance between the characters as individuals, the varied and unique relationships between pairs within the group, and the dynamics of the group as a whole. Each character and each relationship is entirely unique and distinct from all the others—there are old friendships and new ones and ones which have fallen by the wayside; there are intimate ones and genial-but-professional ones and familial ones and romantic ones. And everyone, absolutely everyone, is incredibly real—they have talents and interests, senses of humor and secret hurts, great aspirations and quiet fears. Without hesitation, I would say that Victoria Goddard’s character work is absolutely the best I have ever read.
If you like cozy mysteries, chaos gremlins, nice young men being mentored by extremely cool older women who own bookshops and know a suspicious amount about adventuring, people introducing an old friend to a new friend and happily watching as they instantly like each other and become friends themselves, the plot being advanced by literary criticism on several occasions, genre-savvy protagonists, magical drug smuggling rings, a truly hilarious amount of highwaymen, excellent sartorial fashions, and very wry humor: Read Greenwing & Dart!
In terms of what it is like as an entry point for the Nine Worlds: If The Hands of the Emperor is like getting suplexed into the deep end of a pool, the Greenwing & Dart series is like making your way gradually but steadily into the water using the steps or the ladder, like a sensible person. Unlike HOTE, G&D gives you about two or three books to get acclimated before it really starts emotionally obliterating you with love and tenderness and found-family feelings.
“It seems,” I said a little later, “that not only is my life literally the stuff of melodrama, it is in fact the stuff of high gothic melodrama.”
—Bee Sting Cake, book 2
The Bride of the Blue Wind (Book 1 of The Sisters Avramapul)
You may now be asking, “So is there a ‘Coolest Lady In The Entire World’ championship, to go with the ‘Best Boy In the Entire World’ one?”
Answer: Yes, but Pali Avramapul of the Red Company kicked ass so comprehensively that they kept having to give her all three medals every single year. Thus, they decided to retire the competition and just set up a Hall of Fame so that other women of the Nine Worlds could stand a chance of also being commemorated.
The Bride of the Blue Wind, you guys! It’s a little bit of a Bluebeard retelling, and a little bit entirely its own thing. The plot summary is deceptively simple: Sardeet Avramapul is stolen away by a god (not an unheard-of occurrence), and her two elder sisters, Pali and Arzu, set out on a journey to save her.
Hoo boy, though, this book is so good that I was actually angry about it. You know that feeling? Like when a book is just so fucking good you have to stomp around your house and punch the couch cushions about it? I am faintly quivering with rage just remembering how good this book is. And it’s a novella—it accomplishes its “so good I’m furious” thing in a breathtakingly efficient amount of space.
One thing that I really love about Victoria Goddard’s work is how astonishingly flexible she is with voice—I am consistently floored and impressed, and never moreso than with this book. The Bride of the Blue Wind is written in an elegantly lyrical style, as if it were a fairytale or legend, which is wholly appropriate to the great deeds being accomplished by the characters: This is a story about young women rescuing each other, discovering their own power, and taking vengeance against men who have done violence against them. It is bloody and fierce and extravagantly beautiful.
How is it as an entry point? Well, Pali has appeared in a couple other stories, so knowing about her beginnings and the sort of adventures she was having in her youth (and the epic shit she was accomplishing long before the Red Company was even a twinkle in Fitzroy Angursell’s eye) means you’re going into the Nine Worlds with a certain perspective on who the actual coolest person in the room is. Which… yes, correct. Pali Avramapul is the coolest bitch in town. We have absolutely no choice but to stan. What else is there that needs to be said?
“There are three rules in my house,” he said. “One: You will have keys for all the doors in my house, but the stone door may not be opened. Two: You will have all you desire, but a door out. And three: You may ask me any question, but each answer I give shall exact of you a day’s silence.”
A warning before you continue to the next book on the list: If you enjoy the experience of being blindsided by an exciting revelation in a book more than you enjoy partaking in lavishly indulgent banquets of dramatic irony, do not read about the following two options for entry points. Pick one of the above three and go from there.
That said, Victoria Goddard loves dramatic irony, and the one “big twist” of the series is the sort of thing where being in on the joke (as it were) while the characters themselves are still blithely unaware that there is anything to suspect is in many ways an enriching experience rather than one that ruins the suspense of any major plot events. Additionally, the first option of these next two was published quite early in Victoria’s body of work, well before any of the other books on this list. Does the “big twist” really count as a spoiler, if it’s something that she revealed that early? Your mileage may vary! Your answer might be different from mine! That’s okay! The great thing about multiple entry points is that you can custom-build the reading experience that sounds most appealing for you!
Now, for those of you who are insatiably curious, let us continue…
This is a short story and so, like Bride of the Blue Wind, I can tell you what happens in the plot within a sentence, but what it’s actually about is so much more complex and multifaceted than that.
The sentence about what happens: There is a nameless boy in a tower, bound and trammeled by magic—until he breaks his bonds.
But as for what it’s actually about…
As I mentioned in the section on The Hands of the Emperor, one of the major running themes in Victoria’s work is “identity”. All over the place, you’ve got characters wrestling with the tangled mess of Who They Are, or how to balance the current version of themselves against the ideal of person they aspire to be, or struggling to reconcile their existence in the place where they are versus wherever they long to go, or how to harmonize what they dream of doing with what everyone else around them expects of them, or… or… or.
This short story introduces you to a very, very important character who, here at the beginning of everything, starts out with basically no identity at all and who then, over the course of his lifetime after this story, manages to accrue through adventure and misadventure more identities than any reasonable person actually needs. He is the poster child for all the many and varied ways that Victoria Goddard’s identity theme manifests throughout the books.
If you begin here, you will learn a name, and you will carry knowledge of that name through the rest of the series. You will catch every time Victoria Goddard gives a little cheeky wink in one of the other books. You will be in on the joke from the beginning and it will probably be an extremely cool experience. It was not my experience—I read The Hands of the Emperor first, then this one, and then the following book on this list. But starting with this story would give a fascinatingly different insight on the Nine Worlds series as a whole than I had, and it will do so without ruining your fun in the slightest. It’s just offering a different kind of fun, the way a theme park is a different kind of fun than a murder mystery dinner at home with your friends. I think that’s extremely cool, and therefore I offer this as one of the possible entry points.
On the flyleaf was written, The Commonplace Book of Harbut Zalarin. [….] Sometimes Harbut Zalarin made little sketches or doodles on the page, in ink of several colours. Some framed pithy little aphorisms or things he wanted to remember, and the young man puzzled over these, perturbed at the nonchalance with which the ancient wizard wrote down his thoughts.
One stopped him:
What you name yourself you are.
He read this over several times before it occurred to him that he didn’t know what his own given name was.
BONUS—Maximum Gremlin Option: The Return of Fitzroy Angursell
I am intentionally not going to summarize this book, just in case, because I feel like if you’re enough of a gremlin as to have your curiosity sparked by the phrase “maximum gremlin option”, that selfsame curiosity will compel you to look up the back-cover copy yourself and have all its manifold secrets revealed unto you.
So my professional recommendation is… don’t start with this one. Not because it’s less good—it’s very good, all Victoria Goddard’s books are extremely good, why do you think I asked you to mentally append all those crying emoji and keysmashings after every paragraph? (Have you been remembering to do it?)—but because in terms of the dramatic effect, I feel that this book lands much more effectively if you have a background in several of the other books first.
But technically it is the first book of its own series (as well as being kind of a sequel to The Hands of the Emperor and featuring cameos from a couple of the major characters from Greenwing & Dart and The Sisters Avramapul) and therefore technically it is a potential entry point. It’s just… the gremlin entry point. I cannot tell you what sort of weirdass reading experience you’ll have with the Nine Worlds if you start with this one, but y’know what, some people like to wake up in the morning and choose chaos, and that’s what this book will provide you. Y’know what I mean? Some people enjoy recreationally breaking into a tomb, fast-talking the gravekeeper into lending them his bicycle, careening down a hill on aforesaid bicycle at top speeds while cackling like a fool, and promptly falling face-first into some wetlands.
Which… all happens in the first chapter of this book. To one person. Look, he’s having a busy day, okay? He is a bard! He can’t help it! He is seven possums in a trenchcoat walking into a pub where there has never been an open mic night before, spontaneously inventing the concept of the open mic night, immediately pulling out a harp, and saying, “Anyway, here’s Wonderwall–”
Here’s what’s great about this book: Take a distinctly Howl Pendragon-flavored personality and dial up the drama and chaos-gremlin tendencies several more ticks, graciously allow him to indulge in a stylish costume change in nearly every chapter, give him a severe case of cabin fever which he has just escaped from, add a knack for fire magic and a blithe disregard for the consequences of gravity, and set him loose on the world without any of the people who are usually providing adult supervision. Then, because this is a Victoria Goddard book, pour over the high-proof alcohol of identity themes, found-family feelings, intensely emotional friendships, yearnings-to-be-truly-Known-even-by-just-one-person, and slow recovery from trauma, and then light it all on fire. Behold! You have invented a delicious flambé dessert named Fitzroy Angursell. You will love him. You will not have any choice but to love him. It is utterly impossible not to love him. He will be your favorite character (or rather, the first among equals), and you’ll be a little bit sad that there’s only one book about him so far… Right up until the point when you realize that people talk about him or quote his poetry in every single other book in the Nine Worlds series, and so you are never very far away from him at all. Imagine a heliocentric model of cosmology with Fitzroy Angursell shining at the center—that’s what you have to look forward to.
It was, dare I say it, invigorating, but the plains around Solaara are no wasteland, and my splendid independence lasted only until full dark, when I missed a turn and toppled straight into a fen.
Fortunately some passing arsonists found this amusing and rescued me.
Alexandra Rowland is the author of A Conspiracy Of Truths, A Choir Of Lies, and Finding Faeries, as well as a cohost of the Hugo Award nominated podcast Be the Serpent, all sternly supervised by their feline quality control manager. They hold a degree in world literature, mythology, and folklore from Truman State University.