Emperor of the Eight Islands (The Tale of Shikanoko Book 1) by Lian Hearn
The first installment of Lian Hearn’s four-volume Tale of Shikanoko series (all of which will be published this summer by FSG), Emperor of the Eight Islands is an ambitious introduction that ultimately falls flat. There’s plenty in Hearn’s saga to excite readers but the novel is a peculiar sort of disappointment, one that, although full of the ingredients of a successful fantasy series, doesn’t quite click into place.
When the story opens, Kazumaru’s father is found dead after sneaking into the forest to play Go with a gang of Tengu spirits. Too young to rule his father’s land, Kazumaru’s uncle Sademasa steps in to temporarily oversee the family estate. Sademasa grows reluctant to eventually turn over command and begins instead to plot the death of his nephew. He attempts to kill Kazumaru on a hunting excursion but his plan is thwarted when an ancient stag jumps into his arrow’s path. Kazumaru and the beast tumble into a ravine and they’re left for dead, but a dark sorcerer appears and saves him. He makes a powerful mask out of the dead animal’s skull and Kazumaru is reborn as Shikanoko, the “deer’s child.”
The sorcery in Emperor of the Eight Islands is exciting and strange but fades away as Hearn shifts the drama towards nearby kingdoms and their politics. This is a hackneyed redirection, one full of prophesized fates (such as one heralded from a character’s “Book of the Future”) and populated by only a handful of important players, despite the seemingly widened scope.
Like it or not, we live in a Game of Thrones era: a time of confident, committed fantasy fans who are ready to immerse themselves in rewarding epics by way of careful reading. In return readers can not only escape into a spellbinding fiction but grow with characters as the series progresses and form emotional bonds like those that unfold in the saga. If a sprawling epic doesn’t sate one’s hunger for lore, there are rewarding allegorical tales, from Earthsea to The Golden Compass that, while occurring in a smaller realm, warrant a more critical, theoretical read.
Hearn’s Emperor or the Eight Islands is not quite either of these. It has the political ambition of George R.R. Martin’s warring families in his Song of Ice and Fire series but lacks the expansive vision to make its drama worthwhile. Kingdoms clash with vitriol and double-cross, but the world seems so small and empty: characters run into each other in the sprawling Darkwood, as if there were a single trail in and out. Every kingdom feels interchangeable and an hour’s ride away from each other. While there’s a possibility that later volumes of Tale of Shikanoko will expand its horizons, volume one treats its characters and actions like tokens on a small map in a war-room. Hearn juggles a handful of plot-threads but moves them deliberately around the board as if their changing territories and subsequent actions are all a fantasy needs. Characters go here, and then here, and then here.
In many instances, characters recap the novel’s previous actions: Prince Abbot, halfway through the novel, summarized the first section: “As I was saying,” he explains, unnecessarily, to Shiko, “you disappeared a year ago and during that time you met a mountain sorcerer who corrupted you with dark magic. He made you the mask from the skull of a stag…” And so on. Later in the novel, singers and lute players “had new songs to sing”, which explicitly summarize the “poignant, stirring tales of courage in battle” that transpired in Emperor of the Eight Islands just chapters previously. So much of the novel is simply told to us (and sometimes more than once) that it’s difficult to find any life in its pages on our own.
There are moments in Emperor of the Eight Islands that promise fulfilment later in the series, from the “Hidden Emperor” Yoshimori to talk of a “dragon child” that “fell to Earth” near the Ryusonji temple, but as a single volume the novel is built entirely from its web of characters and their connections. Critically absent from this web is the reader, who is not trusted enough to do anything but listen from a distance.