The Emperor of the Eight Islands, by Lian Hearn

It seems so obvious to merge fantasy with Japanese folklore, and yet so few authors have done so. Fantasy is historically seldom translated, however, so even if there had been a slew of Japanese fantasy books, I likely wouldn’t know of them. That Lian Hearn is a British woman living in Australia is possibly the only reason that she has enjoyed some moderate success in the States – writing in English gets an author plenty of readers. I remember picking a copy of Grass for His Pillow, the first part of Tales of the Otori, Hearn’s biggest series, and the copy I found had been printed in the Japanese style: a small paper-back with tiny writing and beautiful calligraphy on its cover. I found the book used and purchased it on a whim, wrongly assuming it written by a male author from the States obsessed with anime. I didn’t look beyond the front artwork. Little did I know that in Lian Hearn’s work I would find the genre that I didn’t even know I wanted. Though I’ve only read The Emperor of the Eight Islands, she has quickly made her way on to my bookshelf in a place all her own.

The Emperor of the Eight Islands is the first book in Hearn’s newest series, Tale of Shikanoko. Shikanoko is the series titular character, a young man dispossessed of his rightful land by a greedy uncle. We meet him early, and see the betrayal firsthand, as well as his subsequent journey in a Japanese wild that he must traverse before finding himself before an old sorcerer of the mountain. Through arcane rituals steeped in sex and violence, Shika comes to possess a mask that grants him power and vision into the spirit world.

While Shika is finding his path, we are also introduced to Kiyoyori and his wife Tama, as well as Akihime, a princess from a family closed to the Imperial Throne. While this book is never placed in time, it can be inferred by the power structures and royalty lineages as firmly entrenched in the same eras of classics like The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book. This is intentional as a short search for information about Lian Hearn identifies her as a rabid consumer of all things historically Japan. What’s remarkable about The Emperor of the Eight Islands is how well it mirrors those classic texts in style and form. There is no doubt that Hearn has spent an inordinate amount of time reading these great works of literature, and while I am no expert, this feels very much like what I have read of The Tale of Genji, and even shows hints of other classic Japanese literature.

Kiyoyori and Tama both serve to introduce us to the political climate of this mythical Japan, which is one right on the edge of open warfare. The Emperor is dying, and his two sons vie for control of the Throne. The younger son has the backing of a devious wizard known as Prince Abbot, who provides a villain for both Kiyoyori, a noble landowner and loyalist to the rightful king, and for Shika whose brand of wild, chaotic magic stands at odds to Prince Abbot’s ordered and pure world.

All of these characters, by the end, converge in a climax that sees an upheaval of everything each of them have known. Hearn manages to wrap up one story, while creating an urge to move on to the next because nothing about Shikanoko’s tale is final. By the end of The Emperor of the Eight Islands, it becomes clear that he could even be the true villain.

Earlier, I mentioned that Lian Hearn had managed to capture the style and tone of a native Japanese writer, and this works to both undermine her story and authenticate it. Japanese work is translated into English, and in that transformation, something is lost. Those of us who read and love Japanese literature take this for granted and we don’t generally allow it to tarnish those works. Because this book is written in English, we automatically assume it will not lose those aspects so often lost in translation, but because the tone is so similar, something feels lacking. In some ways, I wish that Lian Hearn had taken a Japanese-sounding pseudonym so that the illusion of translation might have provided a barrier to this feeling of missing something. However, that would come with its own, potentially cultural, set of problems.

From a character standpoint, Lian Hearn manages to create a cast of distinct and memorable puppets. Shikanoko, a quiet and introspective young man, is not the usual protagonist, and his quest to reclaim his own homeland sees him continually stumbling into more power than he has any right or ability to control. Kiyoyori is a more traditional samurai-like figure whose loyalty costs him the things he holds most dear, but whose weaknesses seem to carry their own set of failures. Akihime is, unfortunately, not very well developed and only comes into the book towards the final few chapters. I assume we will see more of her in subsequent installments, but I was disappointed that, in Hearn’s ability to jump from character to character throughout the novel, that she did not use Aki more in the beginning and middle sections. Unlike Akihime, Tama has an entire arc within the tale, and Hearn does a remarkable job in creating within Tama a Lady MacBeth-like figure that we almost immediately despise, but eventually understand. Medieval Japan, like many ancient lands, was not a kind place for women.

With The Emperor of the Eight Islands, Lian Hearn has opened up an epic tale of questing and redemption, and she creates an immediate investment in this world. I’m a little biased because I love Japan so much, but I think this is worth reading. I hope the next few books enhance the mythological aspects of her world. I want to see the oni and kappas and magical cats that seem so common in Japanese mythology. If she’s going to write Japanese fantasy, I hope she doesn’t hold back.


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