At the beginning of THE TALE OF SHIKANOKO, Shikanoko’s father played a game with a tengu. He lost, and what he lost cast an entire kingdom into disaster. Shikanoko, whose birth name was Kazumaru, was tainted by sorcery and as much a victim as a wielder of it. Now, in The Tengu’s Game of Go, the second generation rises to try to set things right.
Lian Hearn’s four-book saga reads convincingly like a Japanese tale cycle, and in The Tengu’s Game of Go, elements which seemed to have left the story return, some in surprising ways. When the story opens, Shikanoko, who is trapped within the deer mask, is living a half-deer, half-man existence in the Darkwood, and Yoshi, the hidden emperor, is living with the acrobats in the forest too. Yoshi is married, his wife Kai is expecting a child, and though he knows his true identity he refuses to accept his destiny because he has no desire to be emperor.
Aritomo, head of the Miboshi clan that usurped the Lotus Throne, has learned that Yoshi and the Lady Hina may both be alive, and he sends his retainer Masachika, the Matsutani lord, to capture them. Masachika is smart and strategic; he is also selfish, cowardly and ambitious. On his way to recover the hidden emperor and Lady Hina he develops a plan to murder Aritomo, who seems to be in poor health, and take his place as the usurper Emperor’s lieutenant.
Meanwhile, Takeyoshi, son of Shikanoko and the Autumn Princess, is taught, first by Mu and later by Tadashii, a tengu… a tengu who is, coincidentally, involved in a game of go.
These feel like disparate threads, but the story of The Tengu’s Game of Go weaves them all together. The various elements, whether it’s duplicity and spycraft in the imperial court, magic in the Darkwood, or the colorful, joyous life of the monkey acrobats, blend together to a satisfying conclusion.
Along the way I was reminded how much these characters engaged me. Shika himself disappears from the book for nearly the first half, but his son Take is on stage for much of that time. Masachika is someone I love to hate, and Tama, his wife, the Matsutani lady, is admirable, even though she is jealous and cruel. Tama’s love of Matsutani and the work she puts in to restore the estate redeems her, as does her personal integrity and courage. Even the two mischievous, destructive spirits, former guardian spirits, who haunt the estate respect her.
As for those two spirits… Hidarisama and Migisama are amoral and bloodthirsty, yet strangely child-like and provide much of the book’s comic relief. Like the half-demon spider tribe, the guardian spirits remind us that the realm of demons, spirits and creatures of magic do not follow the same rules that we do, something human characters in these books would do well to remember.
The Tengu’s Game of Go brings the epic to a satisfactory conclusion. Overall, this series was an enjoyable read, its depth well served by elegant, deceptively simple prose. The accelerated publication schedule meant it was possible for someone like me to remember what had gone before without having to reread the last book each time; that said, the four books of THE TALE OF SHIKANOKO — Emperor of the Eight Islands, Autumn Princess, Dragon Child, Lord of the Darkwood, and The Tengu’s Game of Go — are ones I will read again just for the pleasure of it.