Emperor 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.
Well, I’m sold: next time I see this at the bookstore, I’m buying it outright. :D Many thanks, Marion!
I’ve been wondering about these. I’m glad you read this. I will put them on my list…. my never-ending list…
Just downloaded this a few days in hopes that it recostured the start of the Otori series (which I thought got weaker as it went in). Looking forward to this based on this review
Ohhhh…more Lian Hearn? This is going on my to-read list :) Great review! Also agree with Bill about Tales of the Otori