The Short Version: Mountain sorcerers, devious politicians, valiant warriors, betrayed lovers, a young heir to the throne, and more populate the opening novel of Lian Hearn’s four-novel sequence set in a fantastical realm inspired by feudal Japan. And at the center of it all sits a young boy thought dead who doffs his old name and becomes Shikanoko, the deer’s child…
The Review: I think I’ve only ever previously experienced an Eastern-set fantasy world once before, when I was a teenager and read Wizards of the Coast’s novelizations of the Legend of the Five Rings card game. You know, how they do with Magic: the Gathering storylines? They did two arcs: Clan War and the Four Winds Saga – and I read them all while listening to Smash Mouth’s “Astro Lounge” record. The record retains a place of constant rotation (I will argue the merits of that as a near-perfect record any day) but Eastern fantasy never really returned to my reading life, although I always wanted it to. Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori floated somewhere along the edge of my periphery but I never picked up any of her novels – until, of course, she came to the FSG Originals stable.
A word to this: the daring and dashing FSG Originals team has doubled down on their “release a series in a year” plan begun with Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy in 2014, intending all four books in The Tale of Shikanoko to be released in 2016, in April/June/August/September. An ambitious plan indeed – but one that readers will be grateful for, because upon finishing Emperor of the Eight Islands, I wanted to jump immediately into the second book (which, at the time of this writing, I do not yet have). Part of this is because book one ends, quite naturally and predictably, on not quite a cliffhanger but a definite “what happens next?!” – but part of it is because I felt like I’d just gotten fully immersed in Hearn’s world, just started to understand who was who and what was what, and I wanted to use that knowledge to my advantage.
The story is told through a cast of rotating main characters, chief among them being the titular Shikanoko: son of a mountain lord, nearly murdered by his uncle and left for dead after an accident on a hunt, he ends up getting this incredible mask from a sorcerer in the mountains and becoming an almost preternaturally gifted warrior. This all happens in the first few chapters, which seems like quite a bit of knowledge to dump in the early going – and don’t worry, things do slow down and Hearn does spend more time with characters and world-building – but the net effect of this early work is to set this story up as a myth instead of a more traditional novel. And the risk of this structure pays off tremendously.
By the time the plot has settled down a bit and we’ve begun to make sense of the players and the stage, we’re freed from the constraints of the kind of world-building that often bogs down epic fantasy – because Hearn has used that early gauzy mist of capital-S Storytelling to make it so that we don’t need to know. Yes, there’s a map and a five-page character list in the front of the book… but by the end of this first novel, you almost don’t need it. Without flipping through the book, I can’t necessarily tell you every character’s name, but I can sketch how they fit into the plot and (perhaps more importantly) their moral ambiguities. In this, Hearn does depart from old-school myth-making, where players are often easily defined, and instead embraces every possibility of alignment. An objectively “good” character may do bad things in pursuit of that good truth, a hurting character can do a bad thing out of misguided goodness, and so on. While there are certainly evil characters, or at least ones who are decidedly distasteful human beings, they’re all still compelling for their humanity.
I’m also fascinated by magic in this universe. The opening pages see Shikanoko’s father attempt to play Go with a creature called a tengu, there are mysterious magic users living in the mountains, and Shikanoko’s deer mask (created through a rather racy ritual) holds some kind of dark powers of its own – and that’s just for starters. This might be the only place where I wished for a little more illumination in this first volume, but considering that the final volume in the series is called The Tengu’s Game of Go, I’m guessing that there’ll be plenty of magic forthcoming.
Also, a word to readers who would be wary of starting a series because of it being, well, a series: don’t be. Yes, you will fly through this volume and yes it is decidedly the first book in a sequence. But Hearn has a steady hand on the tiller and although I’ve never read quite this story before, she makes sure to plant some familiar flags in the ground to allow readers a chance to gain a solid foothold in between novels. A crown prince on the run, a mysterious hero just coming out of his origin story, evil / bad guys seemingly unstoppable… The waiting will only make the next volume better. I can already feel it.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. The tone is a little jarring at first, both the mythological remove and the nearly overwhelming amount of exposition required to get a reader up to speed on this world. (I wonder, incidentally, if I would’ve needed it/felt this way had I read Hearn’s Otori books, which are [I believe] set several generations after this series). But the novel quickly settles into its groove and is over long before you want it to be. There’s magic, romance, political intrigue, and more. I’m excited by the promise of further adventures – and I’m definitely thankful they’re coming out this year.