The Short Version: Our heroes are scattered to the winds after the events of Emperor of the Eight Islands. Shikanoko retreats the Darkwood, the true emperor has gone into hiding, and the land itself begins to revolt against the false leader. But the Prince Abbot has a plan to draw Shikanoko out and crush any resistance to his control over the country…
The Review: April to June isn’t all that long, in the scheme of things – only two months! – but I found that it was nearly too long to wait for the next installment of Lian Hearn’s “Tale of Shikanoko”, all four parts of which are being published in 2016. (The next two parts are scheduled for August and September, for those marking their calendar.) I say this both because I was eagerly anticipating the next phase of the adventure – and because, once I started it, I found that I’d already lost certain parts of the plot.
Luckily for me, Hearn does spend a bit of time in the first pages of this second volume giving a Shakespeare-esque recap of what just happened. If you know Shakespeare, you know the kind I’m talking about: two characters peripheral to the action show up and spend a scene recounting and commenting on what just happened. This sort of thing is often trimmed or cut entirely from modern productions of those plays – but I’m glad Hearn took a moment to give us a refresher on the action that went before. It doesn’t stop the narrative but instead allows you to slip back in without feeling as though you’re lost. Or at least, it attempts to, as I only found it somewhat successful: Masachika’s place in the story eluded me for far longer than I care to admit. Yes, his plot has always been the most convoluted and purposefully obscured – but it took me a while to remember who the hell he was and why he mattered, especially considering the other characters with whom we were spending time, all of whom were more immediately recalled and placed within the plot. It doesn’t help Masachika, either, that their plots were more immediately enthralling as well.
It’s a legacy, I suppose, of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire that modern stories of epic fantasy (or science fiction) will be told with a rotating cast of characters over a sprawling timeline. Martin’s books, for better or worse, are masterpieces of polyphonic storytelling: they create a world by diving into dozens of heads and managing to keep it all straight. Hearn’s attempt is not quite as masterful as Martin’s, but still rather admirable: she’s juggling close to fifteen main characters and keeping each of them separate and immediately identifiable. The problem comes from her chosen storytelling voice, which is still that slightly-removed voice of a storyteller as opposed to delivering the reader straight into the action. I do think that this is a conscious choice on her part and I’m impressed by it, to be sure – but there is a quality to these stories of fable, of oral history, of a tale that doesn’t necessarily require intense detailing of events. She’s relying on the reader, to some extent, to fill in the gaps and create the world for themselves – but also, there is a reliance on plot over everything else.
And, as with so many middle chapters, this book spins its wheels a little bit. The timeline begins to fracture here, with chapters looping back over sometimes years worth of action we saw somewhere else in order to speak to what another character was doing, and as the focus zoomed out and began to encompass a larger swath of both persons and time, I found that it was a little harder to keep my bearings and know what was important and what wasn’t. Or, no, that’s not right – rather, to know what mattered to the overall plot and what was ostensibly there to develop the characters. This book is actually less a middle chapter and more a continuation of the opening salvo: the board is still being set for the grander showdown(s) to come.
This is not to say that there aren’t compelling and exciting moments. Hearn has a way of creating magic out of simple prose and she does so several times, particularly the compelling finale – including death, destruction, and a dragon(!) – and a mid-book scene surrounding the birth of the Spider Tribe, five children who may or may not be demons and are certainly supernatural. These moments alone are more than worth the price of admission, as they not only move the story and the universe along but they’re also just fantastically gripping sequences in their own right. Still, when the book ended, I felt like things hadn’t moved as far along as it had perhaps initially seemed – and I was already impatiently waiting for the next book.
Rating: 3 out of 5. Book Two of the Tale of Shikanoko suffers a bit from middle-chapter-syndrome, even as the book really serves as a close to the first movement of the Tale: there’s a sense of being caught in a holding pattern at times, with a decent amount of not-quite-exposition but also not-quite-action. There are dynamic scenes and sequences, to be sure, but also a fair amount of board-setting for what’s to come in the rest of the book. Obviously it’s invaluable if you want to read the whole series, but if you can wait to read it until Book Three arrives in August, I’d recommend it – as you’ll want to dive right into that one, I assure you.