Review: The Tengu’s Game of Go by Lian Hearn

Review: The Tengu’s Game of Go by Lian HearnThe Tengu's Game of Go (Tale of the Shikanoko, #4) by Lian Hearn
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Tale of Shikanoko #4
Pages: 256
Published by FSG Originals on September 27th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An epic four-volume adventure in mythical medieval Japan: a world of warriors and assassins, demons and spirits
In The Tengu’s Game of Go, the final book of Lian Hearn's epic Tale of Shikanoko--all of which will be published in 2016--the rightful emperor is lost; illness and murder give rise to suspicions and make enemies of allies. Unrest rules the country. Only Shika can end the madness by returning the Lotus Throne to its rightful ruler.
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 1: Emperor of the Eight Islands (April 2016)The Tale of Shikanoko, Book 2: Autumn Princess, Dragon Child (June 2016)The Tale of Shikanoko, Book 3: Lord of the Darkwood (August 2016)The Tale of Shikanoko, Book 4: The Tengu's Game of Go (September 2016)

My Review:

In a way, I’m sorry that this series had to end. The story is utterly marvelous, and the world it creates is fascinating, deadly and beautiful, often all at the same time. But all good things must come to an end, and I’m very glad to see how it all turned out.

In my mind, there are multiple interpretations of this story. One is about the lengths that fate will go through to bring about what is meant to be after it is knocked out of its intended path by chaos. Another is about paying back and paying forward; one tengu upsets the balance, and another moves the heavens to restore the balance. And then there’s a third possibility; that our mortal lives are merely counters on a vast game of Go played by higher, or at least more powerful, beings. In other words, that we are all nothing more than pawns on something else’s chessboard.

None of these are comfortable thoughts, but they certainly make for an enthralling story.

emperor of the eight islands by lian hearnAt the beginning, all the way back in Emperor of the Eight Islands, Shikanoko’s father loses a game of Go to a tengu, and forfeits his life. It’s not what should have happened, but because it did, Shika is exiled and supplanted as his father’s heir, and his father’s enemies stage a coup and overthrow the rightful emperor. After that all seems to descend into chaos. While the new, rightful child emperor is lost, the kingdom founders as heaven withdraws its blessings. The natural order has been overturned, and with it the seasons and finally the kingdom.

But the years pass. Shika becomes a man and in some ways, a sorcerer. The child emperor grows up and becomes a monkey-boy acrobat. And the kingdom descends further into despair, as the land rots and the crops fail.

In The Tengu’s Game of Go, that long ago game is set right. The tengu cheated, and won unfairly. So another tengu sets himself to thwart his rival, moving his chess pieces to bring Shika out of exile, to provide the hidden emperor with powerful allies, and to force fate back into its intended course.

But the emperor would rather be a monkey-boy.

Escape Rating A: If you have not yet read The Tale of Shikanoko, I envy you the journey. Especially since you will have the opportunity to read it all in one fell swoop, and not have to wait for each volume to appear from the mists of time and myth.

Although The Tale of Shikanoko seems to be classified as either fantasy or historical fantasy, I’m not quite sure that’s right. While there is magic and mysterious beings, it feels more like a myth. As though this is a story that never quite was, to illustrate problems that reflect in reality. So it is a story about time, fate, chance and the balance between order and chaos. The characters in the story represent forces as much as they do individual character arcs. Which does not for one moment lessen the reader’s happiness at seeing them triumph and find their rightful endings, whether good or evil.

I do wish that this had been published as a single volume. These don’t feel like separate stories at all, more like chapters in a single book. Also, this is a very densely packed story, there are a lot of moving parts, a lot happens, and there is a large cast. It took me a couple of chapters each time to get back into this world. It is definitely worth the effort, but I would have preferred the longer, deeper dive.

across the nightingale floor by lian hearnThe end of The Tengu’s Game of Go teases at a link between Shikanoko and the author’s first book, Across the Nightingale Floor. It has me looking forward to another marvelous journey in this mythic world.

Review: Lord of the Darkwood by Lian Hearn

Review: Lord of the Darkwood by Lian HearnLord of the Darkwood (Tale of Shikanoko, #3) by Lian Hearn
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 240
Published by FSG Originals on August 9th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Shikanoko, at what should be a warrior’s hour of greatest triumph, turns his back on those around him, in mourning for a secret love . . .

The Spider Tribe, spurned by their guardian, explore the extent of their powers and ruthless ambitions . . .

Hina, who alone knows the whereabouts of the true emperor, has to forge a new identity of her own. No one must ever know that she is Kiyoyori’s daughter . . .

As the traditional powers navigate weakness and disarray, old spirits and new figures enter the epic battle for the Lotus Throne . . .

In Lord of the Darkwood, the major players of The Tale of Shikanoko are forced to deal with the consequences―expected and unexpected alike―of their past reckless actions. Each of them strives to achieve their destiny, but so far the paths they have followed seem to have done nothing but provoke Heaven’s displeasure.

Profound betrayal, powerful magic, hidden identities, startling violence―these have made the weave of The Tale of Shikanoko so engrossing as it has played out across the sumptuously imagined, beautifully described world of Lian Hearn’s medieval Japan. But the story is now twisting towards its final resolution. Can peace ever come to the Eight Islands?

My Review:

The further I get into the Tale of Shikanoko, the more it reminds me of Tolkien. In Shikanoko, as in The Silmarillion, the reader gets the sense that these are myths and legends of a world that never was, but perhaps should have been. Also, like The Lord of the Rings, it feels as if the Shikanoko is really one large-ish story that was divided into parts for publishing reasons rather than because the stories are actually separate. The endings of each part of this tale don’t even feel as if they are intermediate endings. They feel like pauses for the reader to take a breath before diving back in.

Also, and fair warning, this is not a story that lends itself to putting down and picking up a few days later. An awful lot happens in each part, and the rich denseness of the story makes it compelling, but also a bit difficult to pick up after putting it down for a few days. Leaving this world is always a wrench.

The story in Lord of the Darkwood takes place during Shikanoko’s dark night of the soul. He spends a lot of this story absent, either in mind or in body, while the world goes on around him. And it is not the better for his absence, which is, of course, the point.

autumn princess dragon child by lian hearnIn some ways, there could be said to be three lords of this darkwood. One is Shikanoko – it is his by right of inheritance. Also, as the deer’s child, it is truly his world. He retreats into it to escape from his grief and his despair at the death of the woman he both loved and lost, the Autumn Princess. That story is told in the second book, Autumn Princess, Dragon Child.

But his son Kiku is also a lord of the Darkwood. Kiku and his brothers were born through sorcery in the Darkwood, and it is Kiku who seems to have absorbed most of the darkness. In the absence of Shikanoko, his father and mentor, Kiku turns to the dark side of sorcery, and follows the path of one of their other fathers into banditry and crime. He take the place of the King of the Mountain, and begins a criminal invasion of the cities.

Meanwhile, the land is drying up and the people are dying. At the beginning of Shikanoko’s story, his father was killed after playing go with a Tengu, a chaos spirit of the Darkwood. That death set all the events of the story into motion, and led to not only Shikanoko’s disinheritance and exile, but eventually the death of the rightful Emperor. His heir is also in hiding and exile, playing at being an entertainer to hide his identity. But the land knows that the usurper is not the rightful ruler, and the land is cursed until the balance is restored.

The tengu is also a lord of the Darkwood, and he has returned to right the wrong he created all those years ago. But his nature is chaotic, and restoration will not come without sacrifices made by all those who have been caught up in the wrong he committed. Whether things will be put right, or not, is the part of the tale that has yet to be revealed.

Escape Rating A: In spite of life’s interruptions, I absolutely loved this book, and the series as a whole has been magical, lyrical and just plain awesome.

emperor of the eight islands by lian hearnI will say that this book, and this series, are event-driven rather than character-driven. It seems as if events are set in motion back in Emperor of the Eight Islands, and everything that happens after that is a reaction to those events and various attempts to either set things right or avoid one’s fate in setting things right. Everything happens for a purpose, and coincidences abound in order to have a hope of getting the world back on the right track. It’s marvelous but it is different. Characters are, in some way, forces as much as they are individuals, if not more.

One other story that the Tale of Shikanoko reminds me of is T.H. White’s Once and Future King, which was a book of Arthurian mythmaking. But unlike in White’s book, where the reader knows who Arthur is all along, at this point in Shikanoko we know who the hidden emperor is, we just don’t have a clue whether events are going to work their way around to him actually becoming emperor. It’s also fascinating that Arthur’s learning process in White’s book is scattered among multiple characters in this one.

The tengu sees the world as a vast game of Go. This feels like an important concept in the book and may be a metaphor for the story. The thing about Go, or any game, is that one of the players wins and one loses. If this tengu loses this game, it’s going to be pretty devastating for the people involved. At the same time, the player may not take the game seriously because it is a game.

tengus game of go by lian hearnI don’t think it’s a coincidence at all that the final book is titled The Tengu’s Game of Go. Because the whole story is.

Review: Autumn Princess Dragon Child by Lian Hearn

Review: Autumn Princess Dragon Child by Lian HearnAutumn Princess, Dragon Child (Tale of the Shikanoko, #2) by Lian Hearn
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Tale of Shikanoko #2
Pages: 288
Published by FSG Originals on June 7th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Shikanoko has been humbled by failure, and his once clear destiny has become clouded . . .

The Autumn Princess and the boy who is the true emperor are fugitives in the forest, alone and unprotected . . .

In the mountain sorcerer’s hut a new generation of the Old People is born―the Spider Tribe, not quite human, not quite demons, and quickly coming of age . . .

One clan is in retreat, the other holds the capital, and natural disasters follow one upon another. Will Heaven ever be placated?

In Autumn Princess, Dragon Child, the old order has come unsettled and the weave of destiny has become unpredictable as it is pulled tighter, sharper, faster, by the instincts for vengeance and redemption, loyalty and survival. The battle for the Lotus Throne has begun in earnest.
In this medieval Japan of Lian Hearn’s peerless imagination―so full of magic, beauty, violence, love, and sorrow―the only thing truly inevitable is that these forces are building to a brutal climax, though who the players will be and what the stakes will be cannot yet be told.

My Review:

The Tale of Shikanoko is a myth that was never written, from a past and a country that never quite was.

And it is an epic tale, but one that is perhaps better read in one long delicious gasp, rather than being forced to wait as each part of the tale is released. Or perhaps that should be “revealed”.

She said, wishing that she could find the time to read it all right now, instead of being forced to ration her reading time, knowing that the temptation to reach the end of this glorious tale will become much too strong to resist.

I’m waxing a bit lyrical because this series just breathes that sort of atmosphere. It’s not so much a story that one reads as a world that one falls into, and doesn’t want to leave.

Autumn Princess, Dragon Child is the second part of the Tale of Shikanoko. And it feels like one single tale, broken up into smaller chunks for the sake of publication expediency rather than because the story really breaks into four parts.

Or I could be saying that because I want the excuses to read it all now.

emperor of the eight islands by lian hearnThe first part of the tale, Emperor of the Eight Islands, set the stage. We meet not only Shikanoko, the story’s prime mover and shaker (more often the prime person being moved and shook), but also all of the other characters on the stage. And the civil war between rival factions, the Miboshi and the Kuromori, and their fight to hold the throne.

There is magic here, both the active kind practiced by the mostly evil Prince Abbot and the mostly good Sesshin, and the kind of ambient magic that underpins the world, where the spirits are protesting that the rightful Emperor has been thrown into exile and has lost his throne.

That the rightful emperor is also a child hiding as a monkey boy just adds to the magic and the misdirection. Even more so that the only person who knows where he is will not survive to see him reach his rightful place.

If he ever does.

lord of the darkwood by lian hearnEscape Rating A-: Autumn Princess, Dragon Child does not stand alone. It is not just necessary, but absolutely crucial to read Emperor of the Eight Islands first, as Autumn Princess definitely starts in the middle of things. And those are things which are certainly not finished by its end. For that, we need to wait for Lord of the Darkwood and The Tengu’s Game of Go later this year.

In Emperor of the Eight Islands, Shikanoko was a reactive figure. Things happened to him (lots of things happened TO him) and he reacts and then deals with the aftermath. He does not control events, instead they control him.

In Autumn Princess, Shikanoko begins, just very barely, to master the power swirling around inside him. He is able to act, at least some of the time, and not merely react. But much is still outside of his control.

The fate of the Autumn Princess herself is one of those things that is very much outside of his control. Her fate seems both pre-ordained, and something that could have gone much, much better if Shikanoko had had more control of himself from the very beginning. But if he had, there wouldn’t be much of a story.

A lot of the action in Autumn Princess revolves around betrayals. One of the threads of story from the very beginning involved a betrayal of a son by his father, and a wife by her husband. Their actions have continued to add one falsity upon another, as each of them has turned against every other person who has entered their lives, in their fruitless quest to set aside that first betrayal.

Shikanoko’s uncle betrayed both Shikanoko and his father. The Prince Abbot and his cousin betrayed the rightful emperor. The false emperor, in his turn, was betrayed by a trusted friend. The circle of wrongness continues to ripple outward.

Ultimately, Autumn Princess, Dragon Child has the feel of a middle book, which it is. There is no upward trajectory. Instead, the situation gets worse and worse as the story continues. The only character who may possibly be happy with their current situation is the hidden child emperor, who is having more fun, and a much more fulfilling life, as a performing monkey boy than he ever had as the cossetted and smothered imperial heir.

How his tale will turn back towards Shikanoko’s ongoing tragedy remains to be seen. But based on the first half, it’s going to be awesome.

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
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Tale of Shikanoko #1
Pages: 272
Published by FSG Originals on April 26th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

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.