Book one of the Tale of Shikanoko
By Lian Hearn
Available now from FSG Originals (Macmillan)
Have you ever been absolutely loving a book, when suddenly the ending splashes a bucket of cold water on you? That was my experience with EMPEROR OF THE EIGHT ISLANDS.
EMPEROR OF THE EIGHT ISLANDS is the first book in The Tale of Shikanoko, the new series from Lian Hearn. There are four books, all to be published before July from Farrar, Straus and Giroux's (fairly new) digital imprint. I still intend to read the second book, AUTUMN PRINCESS, DRAGON CHILD, but it is going to have to work to earn back my goodwill. The ending of EMPEROR OF EIGHT ISLANDS soured me quite a bit on Shikanoko, the hero.
Shikanoko means the deer's child, and was not the name he was born with. He was once the heir to an estate, but his uncle arranged to have him killed. Instead, he was forcibly turned into a sorcerer, albeit one who doesn't know much about his powers. His life intersects with that of Kiyoyori, a young lord; Aki, a shrine maiden; and Yoshi, the rightful emperor. Their stories weave together to tell a bloody tale of betrayal, courage, and strange magic.
Hearn uses an episodic structure, which suits the nature of the story. EMPEROR OF THE EIGHT ISLANDS is an epic about legendary heroes, and each adventure leads into the next. It also has strong characterization. Even characters who could be flat-out villains, like the jealous Lady Tama, are understandable from their point of view. She's motivated by love for her children, even if it turns out poorly.
Don't expect a feel good read. EMPEROR OF THE EIGHT ISLANDS had me turning the pages, but it isn't the lightest of reading. Many bad things happen to good people, and even more bad things lurk on the horizon. At the same time, I have hope that good will triumph in the final novel of the series, THE TENGU'S GAME OF GO.