The Short Version: The endgame approaches as Aritomo attempts to solidify his grasp on the power behind the Lotus Throne, the true Emperor confronts his destiny, and Shikanoko is called to bring order into the world. The future hangs in the balance…
The Review: Coming out of the third volume in the Tale of Shikanoko, I was tremendously excited to see where things would go – it felt like we were building up nearly unstoppable momentum, in a rush towards the inevitably action-packed conclusion. And while The Tengu’s Game of Go does provide quite a bit of action and even a solidly aggressive pace to the finish… I felt as though the stakes were strangely low.
Lots of things happen, to be sure: Masachika finally gets his comeuppance, Lord Aritomo starts to freak out in a big way, Shikanoko must deal with a) his Spider Tribe children, b) his biological son, and c) Hina – and, of course, the true emperor is discovered. We’ve been waiting on that development for a while and I don’t think it’s surprising at all to reveal that it finally happens here. But even as Yoshi was in ostensible danger, I found that I rather knew everything was going to turn out alright. Call it a gut feeling, as I’ve never read the Tales of the Otori and so have no sense of what this world eventually becomes – but I just knew from the minute I picked up this book exactly how this series would resolve.
So then the question becomes whether or not the resolution itself is enjoyable, even if it’s predictable. This is an easier, gentler answer and it’s a resounding “yes”. It was almost as though Lian Hearn was saving up the really good stuff for this book, doling it out sparingly over the other three. Even if you knew, always, that our heroes would prevail, it was still fascinating to learn once and for all about (some SPOILERS here, although I don’t think they ruin anything) the tengu that killed Shikanoko’s father, to read Lady Tama’s beautifully executed (horrible pun not intended) death scene, and to imagine what Yoshimori would really do when confronted with the reality of his birth. Hearn doles out moments like rewards, as though congratulating readers for staying with her to the end.
And although the book still has moments of awkwardness, it does also feature some of the very best writing in the entire quartet. When Hearn wants to describe something really well, she can downright knock your socks off – like Tama’s death scene, which was genuinely shocking for how visceral it felt and for how present we were in the moment. It actually took my breath away. So, too, did Yoshi’s initial refutation of the throne and of the complicated, understated dance between Hina and Shika – a dance that made the very end of the book right up there with that best sort of ending, the kind that propels new adventures onward (even if we won’t be reading them).
But as we conclude this quartet, another of FSG Originals’ buzz-worthy endeavors in a speedy publication cycle, I’m left wondering about why this series was split into four books. Yes, at the end, we discover that each of these stories has essentially been the legendary tale that would be passed down over generations – but, for example, the UK got these books in two instead of four. And while I’m very glad I got to read them all so quickly (a longer gap between would’ve been downright deadly to one’s continued comprehension), I can’t help but think I would’ve perhaps been more engrossed if I’d had a chance to read them even more back-to-back. An omnibus, for example, might be the ideal way for a reader unfamiliar with Hearn’s work to dive in and get all the benefits of the sprawling world without any of the struggle of having read things in between. And while that may be a reflection of my reading life/choices more than anything – I read probably a dozen books between Lord of the Darkwood and this – it can’t be ignored that I took far longer, at the outset of reading nearly each installment, to reestablish who everybody was and what their allegiances were and so forth. Shika and his story were always clear but Masachika and Hina and Kiyoyori and the rest were all a bit blurrier to me until I was nearly halfway into any given installment. Perhaps that just because I liked the series’ namesake better than anybody else – and for that, I think I can be forgiven.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. In some ways, this is the most traditional installment of the quartet: plots come to a close, good triumphs over evil, and everybody gets their story wrapped up in a bow. And when Hearn is on, she’s on – those concluding sequences, even though I was never really in doubt about their outcome, were a delight to read. But that same lack of doubt on my end can be traced, I think, to a peculiarity in Hearn’s authorial voice, a flatness and evenness of tone that only occasionally bursts into a moment of stunning beauty or breathless excitement. That peculiarity makes those explosive moments all the more memorable, but conversely it makes the rest of the reading somewhat ho-hum – like reading the paper on a Sunday morning after having watched the news all week. Still, I was glad to’ve followed this adventure to its end, as there are things I will always remember with delight. It just wasn’t everything I’d hoped it to be.