Lian Hearn has given us a beautiful Japanese inflected epic fantasy. The Japanese influence pervades the story, from the names to the geography to the political system to the monsters to the magic to the social norms to the form of storytelling itself. In just 272 pages Emperor of the Eight Islands packs a truly epic story filled with worldbuilding and war and tremendous tragedy.
Of course I say that all as a gringo not remotely qualified to opine on the faithfulness of Japanese influences. But then I also don’t care. I want something cool, interesting, and a little foreign and weird. I don’t demand or even want faithfulness to my own mythology and folklore in speculative fiction, why would I ask the same from any other?
Kazumaru’s childhood is thrown into chaos when his father, a minor lord, loses a game of Go to tengu—beaked, taloned, winged mountain goblins—with his life as the stakes. No one thinks his uncle will allow him to reach majority, and sure enough, his uncle makes his move on a hunting trip. It is Kazumaru that his uncle takes aim at with his bow, not the stag they had been stalking, but the stag charges Kazumaru and they go off a cliff to be left for dead. Kazumaru loses his birthright and picks up the stag’s skull. An encounter with a mountain sorcerer turns that skull into a mask that gives him the ability to “move as silently as a deer, with the same keen eyesight and hearing.” But the mask is much more powerful than just that. And “love is bound into its creation but so is lust, the force that drives the world to recreate itself unconstrained by human rules.” With it comes the name Shikanoko.
Emperor of the Eight Islands is very much Shikanoko’s story, but it’s also the definition of Loads and Loads of Characters (a glossary of named characters at the front comes in very handy). It is also the story of a minor lord caught up in imperial politics, an old sorcerer in his service, a nurse tasked with saving the child heir to the throne. There are scheming sorcerer princes, werehawks, bandit kings, and courtesans.
And again, this is all in 272 pages. Who says epic fantasies have to be doorstoppers? Hearn’s skill as a storyteller is apparent as she keeps the story hurtling along without skipping the good parts or being jarring. What other authors would spend several chapters on she dispenses with in a few sentences. This also lends the tale the air of a pre-fantasy epic, of a national mythology.
Like most Americans, I suspect, my knowledge of Japanese history is heavily biased toward the Edo period. Emperor of the Eight Islands draws from an earlier time, but a time of change. At one point warriors walking out one by one, naming themselves and demanding an opponent, die under a hail of arrows from a unified source.
The magic system is one of meditative rituals, unnamed spells, and exotic artifacts, practiced by mountain hermits and noble priests. It’s not unknown in fantasy, but it’s out of fashion. As such, it is one of the many aspects that make the story feel so fresh.
4.5 of 5 Stars.
Emperor of the Eight Islands is Book 1 in the Tale of Shikanoko, a four-part series to be published entirely in 2016. Book 2, Autumn Princess, Dragon Child, will be out on June 7.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary advance copy of Emperor of the Eight Islands via NetGalley.