Review – Emperor of the Eight Islands

Emperor of the Eight Islands, Fantasy/Folklore by Lian Hearn

Series: The Tale of Shikanoko #1

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I loved this book. It’s a low-key, don’t get too excited, kind of love, but I love it all the same. I grew up as the weird kid who liked Japan, but while I did watch anime and I was certainly familiar with western otaku, it wasn’t the end-all be-all. For me it was the language and the history. I didn’t take Japanese in college in hopes of reading original copies of Ranma 1/2 manga. I wanted to read Genji Monogatari and A Cat, A Man, and Two Women.

The story hits a lot of high notes as fabricated folklore. Everyone has either a devastating or idyllic childhood, magic and sorcery set practitioners apart from mere mortals, people lie, people die, and magical items are fascinating even when they don’t do anything. Or rather, when they haven’t done anything yet. The pacing is necessarily a bit on the slow side, as events unfold over the course of years, counting backstories.

Kazumaru has a poetically tragic beginning. His father, a bright and charming man who does as he pleases, disappears when he dares to play go with tengu in the mountains. His death is readily assumed, and Kazumaru’s mother gives in to her grief by leaving to become a nun. Kazumaru is left in the care of his uncle, who despite having promised to care for the boy like his own, proceeds to make Kazumaru’s life miserable. This culminates in a plan to kill the boy just before he comes of age while they hunt a stag whom the uncle desperately wants as a trophy.

As the plan is fable-obvious, Kazumaru knows it’s a trap. He says farewell to his only friend and goes regardless, because he knows that his uncle wants him dead. It will happen one way or another, and this way, he faces his fate like a man. However, in the moment when he knows his death is coming, the stag takes the killing blow meant for Kazumaru, and like Alice, the boy literally falls into a world of magic, danger, and political manoeuvring.

…technically that last one was not something Alice had to worry about, I suppose. Unless you count the issues between the Duchess, her fat baby, and the Red Queen. But I digress.

While Kazumaru is the central figure in the story, it has many layers beyond him. There are multiple perspective characters, and they tend to come into conflict with one another. No one is necessarily good or evil, even characters whom we are told are explicitly good or evil. I don’t know where to stand, which is rather fascinating.

Sorcerers in this world are all the esoteric sage types who live supernaturally long lives studying and hoarding scrolls and grimoires. Their powers are immense, yet portrayed in enigmatic broad strokes. Parlour tricks aren’t off the table, but they tend not to work. Magic is too vast for the uninitiated to even grasp.

Hearn’s writing style has a profound dignity, measured and even. I could easily imagine kotsuzumi and nōkan playing in the background while I was reading. A bit like reading a play, where implied sound and visuals come to mind.

There’s an unpleasant jolt just pages before the end of the book that threw me for a nasty curve, though. I won’t say what happened, as it’s seriously right at the end, but suffice to say, while it was certainly appropriate for a story faithfully written in the style of Japanese folklore and mythology, I hated the event itself and cannot see the guilty character recovering in my eyes. Maybe there will be a redemption arc over the series or even as soon as the second book. It will have to be stellar for me to get over that ending.

Even so, taken as a whole, Emperor of the Eight Islands is a beautifully written book that I highly recommend to anyone familiar with Japanese culture or looking to become so.

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