The Short Version: Years have passed and the Eight Islands have come to an uneasy sort of peace – but the true emperor is still in hiding, Shikanoko remains adrift in the Darkwood, and the Spider Tribe begins to create chaos in the realm. It will take love and potent gifts to set the world aright again – but will the world survive such a shift?
The Review: When I mentioned previously that the timeline had begun to splinter, I had no idea that time would speed up and elide so much. Over the course of Autumn Princess, Dragon Child and Lord of the Darkwood, more than a decade passes by almost in the blink of an eye. At least, by my count it’s a decade or so – it’s sometimes hard to tell just how much time has elapsed. Suffice it to say, time moves forward and pulls the characters along in its wake… and while some of the immediate urgency of the first book (and parts of the second) slips away as the time grows long, Hearn’s larger goal grows clear: this is not the tale of a single moment in time but rather the pivotal years in a country’s history. The true emperor is not going to be re-throned right away, the balance of nature not returned to harmony so quickly. I didn’t realize at first, especially because the first two books take place largely over the course of a year or two (although there’s some several years that slip by at the start of Emperor of the Eight Islands), but I grew increasingly impressed with the story that Hearn was telling as this book went on.
The board that was set after Autumn Princess, Dragon Child has now been put in motion and much of this book is from the perspectives of characters either new or who had previously not been so central to the story. Shikanoko himself is only present for part of the novel, more often gallivanting around the Darkwood and slowly losing his humanity. Instead, we’re seeing the fractured world from the perspective of those who have survived the initial tumult and who have now carved out a sort of life of their own – particularly Hina (Kiyoyori’s daughter) and several of the Spider Tribe demon-children (who aren’t really children anymore), but even a chapter from the perspective of Lord Aritomo, the power behind the throne. The things I found frustrating about Book Two’s scattershot storytelling work as strengths here, because the world has been so firmly established and the story is only getting clearer as it draws towards a conclusion. It also helps that I was lucky enough to read Books Two and Three back-to-back – a decision I encourage anyone who can to follow.
There’s also a moment in this book that just knocked my socks off, pulling me into the storytelling as much if not more than anything that’d come before: the return (to the story) of the tengu. I won’t delve too much into the particulars, both for fear of spoiling some things and because it’s best read with as much wide-eyed wonder as I myself experienced – but I appreciated the way that Hearn’s decision to amp up the fantastical nature of this world she’s created comes at just the right moment. It’s not quite deus ex machina, but there is a sense of an even larger game being played and some of the seemingly random magical occurrences that felt as though they must have some reason or pattern behind them… well, it turns out that they do. Or at least they sort of do. You’ll see what I mean.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. Despite spending a fair portion of the novel with new narrators, the world and everyone’s place in it was much more strongly realized – to the point that I could see the whole board, as it were. The magic both of and within Hearn’s writing is beginning to really glow now and I had more fun here than I have yet in the Tale of Shikanoko. I imagine the conclusion is going to be one hell of an event – and I’m glad we’ll only have to wait a few weeks this time.