Wen Alder is a child of a Sien father and a Nayeni mother; the Sienese are the conquerors of Nayen (& many other lands) and Alder is torn between the two early in his life. His (maternal) Grandmother names him in the Nayeni tradition - Foolish Cur - and tries to teach him of their ways in secret alongside his training at his Father's behest towards taking the Imperial Examinations at age 17.
Alder yearns for magic and after a foolish attempt to wield it before understanding it his Grandmother departs to join the Nayeni rebellion in the north, leaving Alder only one path to know magic: to become a Hand of the Emperor. In the first series of examinations to take place in Nayen, Alder succeeds and begins his apprenticeship as a Hand, however, his introduction to imperial magic is not what he had hoped and his desperate desire to find that pure and powerful magic he touched as a child is rekindled.
This is a coming-of-age story that encompasses a number of years in the life of Alder, from ages 5 to 23, and what he learns in his questing journey for magic that has fascinated him as long as he can remember. We follow him through years of study, his examinations, apprenticeship and beyond as he tries to learn as much as can be found on magic. What he finds is often a disappointment to him and his pursuit of this knowledge leads him into some tragic circumstances, changing him forever.
Greathouse's prose it not thick and is quite easy to read. The book is about the perfect length to introduce you thoroughly to Alder and this world as he learns more about it. The first-person POV I think complements this slow revealing of knowledge very well. One positive compared to other coming-of-age, 1st person POV fantasy novels is that there is no achingly slow downtime where little appears to happen. The Hand of the Sun King ensures there is no dull, drawn out expositions or lengthy travel sequences to force yourself through. The only downside I felt was that there's a lot to fit in and as such some events had more of a cursory going-over. Nevertheless, this is a brilliant debut and I can't wait to continue the series.