Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn fantasy book reviewsEmperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn

Emperor of the Eight Islands, by Lian Hearn, is the first book in a series of four, called THE TALE OF SHIKANOKO. The books are published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and all four will be issued in 2016 (April, June, August, September). The publisher has used this compressed release schedule before, most notably with Jeff VanderMeer’s AREA X trilogy.

The Emperor of the Eight Islands is not a long book, although quite a bit happens between its covers. We meet the character of Shikanoko, the “deer’s child,” although he has another name when his father dies mysteriously on a scouting trip. The son is raised by a greedy uncle who plans to claim the boy’s birthright. The uncle plans to kill the boy on a hunt in the Darkwood, but a stag saves him, dying in the process. The boy is taken in by a sorcerer who names him Shikanoko and creates a magical mask from the head of the stag. The mask gives Shikanoko power he does not yet know how to use.

Shikanoko is the title character but this book has a broad canvas, set against rising tension as the old Emperor grows weaker. An ambitious priest plots to put his favorite on the throne; a father’s manipulations set two brothers against each other and force a woman into a loveless marriage; a demon schemes to find five fathers for her five unborn children. The book is filled with magic. In addition to the mask there is a magical lute, the demon I mentioned earlier, were-hawks and magical animals, spirits that haunt houses, and other worlds that can be reached at a crossroads or on shoreline, anywhere all the worlds touch.

Hearn’s prose is intentionally spare and elegant, successfully capturing the sense of a folktale. Hearn says in the afterword that she is writing in the style of the warrior tales of medieval Japan, and within the story one character compares himself to Genji. Despite the fact that The Emperor of the Eight Islands is short and there are many characters, those characters are plausible and convincing. In the case of Lady Tama, whose act of rage sets a series of plot events in motion, she is driven by grief, and later a desire to regain her ancestral land. Shikanoko himself is largely manipulated by those more powerful than he is, but by the end, he has become aware of his own power and is making his own way (although I have to wonder about at least one bad thing he does right near the end of the book).

I have never been attracted to Hearn’s earlier series TALES OF THE OTORI and I don’t know what caught my attention here, unless, honestly, it was the beautiful cover. Once I read the first page, though, I was caught up. The second book Autumn Princess, Dragon Child came out earlier this month. I don’t have it as I’m writing this review, and the suspense is killing me. Emperor of the Eight Islands is fascinating and lyrical.

The Tale of Shikanoko — Published in 2016. In the opening pages of the action-packed Book One of Lian Hearn’s epic Tale of Shikanoko series–all of which will be published in 2016–a future lord is dispossessed of his birthright by a scheming uncle, a mountain sorcerer imbues a mask with the spirit of a great stag for a lost young man, a stubborn father forces his son to give up his wife to his older brother, and a powerful priest meddles in the succession to the Lotus Throne, the child who is the rightful heir to the emperor barely escaping the capital in the arms of his sister. And that is just the beginning. As destiny weaves its rich tapestry, a compelling drama plays out against a background of wild forests, elegant castles, hidden temples, and savage battlefields. This is the medieval Japan of Lian Hearn’s imagination, where animal spirits clash with warriors and children navigate a landscape as serene as it is deadly.

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  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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