Review: Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn

Review: Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian HearnEmperor of the Eight Islands (Tale of Shikanoko, #1) by Lian Hearn
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Tale of Shikanoko #1
Pages: 272
Published by FSG Originals on April 26th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

In the opening pages of the action-packed Book One of Lian Hearn's epic Tale of Shikanoko series--all of which will be published in 2016--a future lord is dispossessed of his birthright by a scheming uncle, a mountain sorcerer imbues a mask with the spirit of a great stag for a lost young man, a stubborn father forces his son to give up his wife to his older brother, and a powerful priest meddles in the succession to the Lotus Throne, the child who is the rightful heir to the emperor barely escaping the capital in the arms of his sister. And that is just the beginning.
As destiny weaves its rich tapestry, a compelling drama plays out against a background of wild forests, elegant castles, hidden temples, and savage battlefields. This is the medieval Japan of Lian Hearn's imagination, where animal spirits clash with warriors and children navigate a landscape as serene as it is deadly.
The Tale of Shikanoko, Book One: Emperor of the Eight Islands (April 2016)The Tale of Shikanoko, Book Two: Autumn Princess, Dragon Child (June 2016)The Tale of Shikanoko, Book Three: Lord of the Darkwood (August 2016)The Tale of Shikanoko, Book Four: The Tengu's Game of Go (September 2016)

My Review:

The Emperor of the Eight Islands has the feel of a myth or legend from a place that may have once existed, but that we do not know well. In that sense, it reminds me a lot of some of Tolkien’s background myths for The Lord of the Rings, like The Tale of Beren and Lúthien in The Silmarillion. The Emperor of the Eight Islands shows us a legend so shrouded in the mists of time that it has come to feel like myth.

And it is not a land we in the West know well. Instead of the fantasy realm of Middle Earth, the author has created their own semi-mythical version of feudal Japan, and it is there that the story is set.

It is also a coming-of-age story. And it is a tale where magic and its practitioners meddle far too much in the affairs of, if not lesser men, then certainly in the affairs of politics where magic is too easily turned to the ends of ambitious and unscrupulous men. Magic becomes yet one more means that may or may not justify its ends, depending on exactly whose ends it turns out to serve.

As the first book in the Tale of Shikanoko, the coming-of-age that begins in this story is that of the titular character, Shikanoko. Once upon a time, he was the oldest son of a feudal lord, expected to take his father’s place in his turn. But his father died young, and as all too happened in history, his younger brother and regent was unwilling to give up his power when the rightful heir came to adulthood.

So we follow Shikanoko as he fakes his own death on the hunt, rather than let his uncle murder him in truth. And from there, Shikanoko finds himself pushed from place to place and from power to power.

A hidden sorcerer gives him a mask that allows him to enter the world of the deer, as a horned stag. It is powerful, but a power that more often controls him, rather than him controlling it. He finds himself first a prisoner in the midst of an outlaw band, and then a servant in the house of a noble warlord.

He is then a puppet at the hands of a powerful priest, and finally his own man, but only after he has been manipulated into events that he recognizes as world-shaking, even as he still puzzles their meaning for himself and those whom he meets along his journey.

But as Shikanoko stumbles his way into his own power, the politics of his world topple around him. A dynasty rises, a house falls, and Shikanoko finally gains control of his own power by throwing away what he should most hold dear.

And the true Emperor, a lost child he encounters on his wandering journey, disappears into the mist.

Escape Rating A: Attempting a description of The Emperor of the Eight Islands has forced me to wax very lyrical, as the above demonstrates. The story feels so much like myth or legend of a place that never was but should have been. Readers who enjoyed diving into the legendarium behind The Lord of the Rings, and readers who love Guy Gavriel Kay’s alternate almost magical history/fantasy, particularly his Under Heaven and River of Stars, should fall in love with Shikanoko as much as I did.

(With its multiplicity of long and unfamiliar-sounding names, The Emperor of the Eight Islands also reminded me a bit of The Goblin Emperor)

Throughout this story, Shikanoko is a character who is much more reactive than proactive. It begins when he is very young, and his place in the world is knocked out from under him. He’s uncertain about who he wants to be or what he wants to do, only that he wants to live. And it seems that there are forces beyond his control that have greater plans for him than he can envision.

This is also a story that begins its tale when all of its protagonists are children who have to earn or learn their place in the world. Not just the young Shikanoko, but also Aki and the little Emperor Yoshi. When the political machinations that have been brewing for decades finally boil over, Aki finds herself lost in a world that is not prepared for, tasked with a duty that is well beyond her reach – and yet she perseveres in her dangerous course.

This is an epic fantasy. Shikanoko’s wanderings take him from the depths of the ominously named Darkling Wood to the halls of shadowed power. There are all too many sorcerers and magic practitioners who are using him for the power that he carries within that stag mask – and there are agendas that swirl around him that are only vaguely hinted at in this first book. There is clearly more story to tell.

autumn princess dragon child by lian hearnThis is a story with multiple points of view. While it is primarily Shikanoko’s coming of age story, we also follow the journey of the child Emperor Yoshi, as seen through the eyes of his older sister and protector, Aki. Her tale will continue in the second book of the series, Autumn Princess, Dragon Child which I am looking forward to reading very, very much.

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