Lord of the Darkwood by Lian Hearn fantasy book reviewsLord of the Darkwood by Lian Hearn

This is Book Three in a quartet and this review may contain spoilers for earlier books.

In the third installment of Lian Hearn’s THE TALES OF SHIKANOKO, the story moves to the next generation, with the true emperor and the son of Shika and the Autumn Princess. In Lord of the Darkwood (2016), characters who previously played supporting roles take center stage, and for the first time in the series we meet a tengu, the magical birdlike beings that are not necessarily evil but definitely dangerous.

Despite seeing the tengu in action for the first time, and despite the advances in the plot, I didn’t enjoy Lord of the Darkwood quite as much as I did the first two books. Part of it may just be pacing. Many years go by in this book, to age certain characters to the point where they can realistically act on the plot, and this also allows time for the reader to see how badly the land is suffering under the rule of a false emperor. The downside to this, though, was that several intriguing characters, among them the woman Ibara, went into a holding pattern for the bulk of the book.

One character who comes to the fore is Hina, the daughter of the Kiyoyori lord, and protector of Shikanoko’s son Takemaru. The story follows Hina closely as she escapes from an attack and is recruited by Lady Fuji and her pleasure women. Hina is separated from Takemaru for a time. Ultimately, though, they are reunited with a new mission.

Meanwhile, the Spider Tribe continues to develop. One of the human-demon hybrid brothers stays in the forest and begins to learn about true family, until he is approached by a tengu. Two other brothers go off to the city to become merchants — ruthless, murdering, wealthy merchants. The reader knows that the spider brothers have no human conscience or ethics, but it is interesting to see how quickly they are able to seduce humans into helping them.

Hina plays a large role in the story, and she is a good character. I was disappointed that her only choice was to become a “pleasure woman.” This felt stereotypical. It may very well be part of the story tradition Hearn is following here, but it was still a disappointment. Basically, Hina gains power in Lord of the Darkwood not on her own, but because of the infatuation of a couple of men. That seems to have changed at the end of the book, when she and Takemaru set off on their new quest, so I’ll hope for the best.

In spite of my disappointment with Hina’s progression, everything I like about this series is in this book: the spare, elegant language; the descriptions; the complicated motivations and plot; the magical elements; the made animals like Gen the fake wolf and Ban the flying horse; the tengu and the monkey acrobats. Lord of the Darkwood does a good job of showing us what’s at stake and setting everything in place for the final act, The Tengu’s Game of Go, due out in September 2016.

Published August 9, 2016. A self-assured warrior stumbles into a game of Go that turns fatal. An ambitious lord leaves his nephew for dead and seizes his lands. A stubborn father forces his son to give up his wife to his older brother. A powerful priest meddles in the succession to the Lotus Throne. A woman of the Old People seeks five fathers for her five children, who will go on to found the Spider Tribe and direct the fate of the country. As destiny weaves its tapestry in Lian Hearn’s Tale of Shikanoko series, an emotionally rich and compelling drama plays out against a background of wild forests, elegant castles, hidden temples, and savage battlefields in Lord of the Darkwood.


  • 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.