Emperor of the Eight Islands (Tale of Shikanoko #1)
by Lian Hearn
Review by Judy Newton
FSG Originals Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780374536312
Date: 26 April 2016
In Lian Hearn's previous series, Tales of the Otori, the spirit world was a hovering presence. Some of the characters variously took advantage of seemingly supernatural powers conferred by secret rituals and training, but the larger world was unaware that their superstitions and beliefs could really exist and affect their own lives.
Not so in her newest series, The Tale of Shikanoko. Book one opens with the eponymous hero participating in a sorcerer's ritual which imbues him with superhuman talents, and later he gains yet more, albeit latent, power from another sorcerer. Throughout the book, he strives to gain control and understanding of his abilities.
This imagined world of medieval Japan is permeated with spirits and demons, some helpful, others hurtful to the humans going about their own concerns: waging wars of territory and dominance among powerful families, loving and hating, seeking revenge for betrayals, serving the gods and "serving" pleasure-seekers on entertainment barges, trying to raise crops amid wars and earthquakes.
Shikanoko moves through this world, working to understand the power conferred upon him and hoping to regain the estate he was denied by a deceitful uncle. Along the way, he meets other characters who will, no doubt, be major actors in later parts of the series, including (and here I am picking up clues from the List of Characters) several supernatural beings. I can't wait to read about the hinted-at appearance of the Dragon Child, who lives under the lake which borders the temple ruled by the nefarious Prince Abbot, Shikanoko's major adversary. (But then, I'm a sucker for dragons.)
The story is told in a lucid and at times lyrical prose style that overcomes the unfamiliar, multisyllabic character names. Frequent violence mixes with moments of transcendence; danger is never far away--but that's what makes it exciting!
The four volumes of The Tale of Shikanoko will all be published this year. We won't have to wait long for the development of the plot elements put in motion in Emperor of the Eight Islands. I will be eagerly awaiting the other three books.