Autumn Princess, Dragon Child by Lian Hearn
Lian Hearn’s Autumn Princess, Dragon Child, the second book in THE TALE OF SHIKANOKO, begins right where the first book ended. This series plays out on a broad canvas and in this volume we follow some characters we saw only briefly in Emperor of the Eight Islands. Some characters find that their story arc ends in this book, as the story grows darker and more tragic, but the book never loses momentum.
This review may contain mild spoilers for Book One, Emperor of the Eight Islands.
With the manipulation of the Prince Abbot, who has installed a puppet emperor on the Lotus Throne, the Miboshi Clan is now ascendant, but the heavens themselves rebel against a false emperor, and the land is lashed with natural disasters like earthquakes and floods. More and more people are facing up to the fact that the true emperor must be found and returned to his throne, even though saying this is to risk torture and death.
In the vast forest known as the Darkwood, Shikanoko recovers from his injuries, and his magic grows even stronger. For the first part of the book, we see him raising the Spider Tribe, offspring of the demon Lady Tora. Meanwhile, Princess Aki, the Autumn Princess, had hidden with Yoshi, the young emperor, deep in the woods, where they have been adopted by a band of monkeys. Hunters find them, separating the two, and sending Yoshi on a new adventure.
Lady Tama has won back her ancestral estate, even though it is haunted by two guardian spirits who have turned bad because the spell commanding them has been broken, and soon her former husband, Lord Masachika, has returned to her side. Masachika is favored by the Miboshi Lord, and things are looking up for him… for now.
Autumn Princess, Dragon Child spends a good deal of narrative time with Hina, Lord Kiyoyori’s daughter, Aki, the Autumn Princess, and Yoshi, but we also see plenty of the strange demon-human Spider tribe, five brothers born out of spidersilk cocoons. Shikanoko raises them, and he thinks of himself as a father-figure — he is literally their father in one sense, along with four other men — but they do not revere him as a father. They see him more as an older brother, and this difference affects the story. The five demon boys do not do what Shika tells them… they do what they think he desires. This marked difference adds a level of conflict for Shika. Even when he tries to do the right thing, bad things happen around him, and he is at least partly responsible. At the same time, the spider tribe is a valuable ally and they fight by his side for the most part. Part of the suspense of this story is whether Shika will ever be able to truly harness his powers to his will, and do the right thing when he chooses to.
Of all the storylines in here, I enjoyed Yoshi’s the most, even though he ends up farther than ever from the Lotus Throne. In this book, characters I cared about came to tragic ends, and some characters I despise achieved status and success, and this is part of what makes the story so fascinating and entertaining. Once again, elegant prose propels this adventure, whether it’s a description of a shrine by a lake, or the appearance in the final pages of the Dragon Child itself. The dialogue among the five brothers of the Spider Tribe is chilling in its amoral innocence, and they are great elements to a story already packed with ghosts, magical masks, magical swords and magical animals.
Then he spoke to the stag. He saw it tread proudly through the forest, its antlers held erect, its nose twitching, its eyes bright. He heard its autumn cry of yearning and loneliness. He expressed his sorrow at its death, his gratitude at all it had done for him. He called it Father and told it his name, Shikanoko, the deer’s child.
In several ways Autumn Princess, Dragon Child is an autumnal book, ending on a note of melancholy if not outright sadness, but remember, the heavens themselves are weeping for the loss of the true emperor. This book is a gripping read by itself, and leaves the stage perfectly set for Lord of the Darkwood, which will come out in August, 2016.