The Emperor of the Eight Islands is a thoroughly engrossing tale that echoes the mediaeval warrior tales from Japan. The Darkwood looms large in the background and there are mythical beasts, dangerous spirits and magic everywhere. It is an entertaining and beautifully written tale that rushes along to a climax with no let up in pace. I liked the way that the stories of the different groups, families and factions come together and then split apart as we follow the fortunes of the different characters. Their displacements echoes events in a kingdom being torn apart by war.
At first the map at the beginning of the book and the list of characters will be your best friends. I struggled with unfamiliar Japanese names and places, and the confusion was not helped by some character’s names changing part way through. For example, at the centre of the book is Shikanoto (Shika for short) who was initially known as Kazumaru. He has a destiny to survive, first when his father is killed and then when his uncle tries to kill him in a “hunting accident”. At this point he is saved by a stag and as a result becomes deeply connected to and part of the forest. From there he will grow more powerful and follow a destiny that will eventually bring many strands of the novel together.
The Land of the Eight Islands falls into turmoil as two waring factions fight over who will become the Emperor. With the death of the true Emperor, and because his son and heir is too young to hold onto power, the evil Prince Abbot manoeuvres to be the power behind the new throne. The young Emperor is whisked away by his foster sister Akihime so that he can dwell safely in the forest until a better hiding place is found.
As Shikanoto grows more powerful, helped by sorcerers and then a clan of young boys born from cocoons, he finds himself pushed relentlessly towards a conflict with the Prince Abbot. Which of them will have enough powerful spirits and supporters to win the fight?
Be warned, there is another tale to come in this series, so although some things are resolved by the end of this book, there are plenty of lose ends left to be sorted out in the next instalment. Not least, the fate and location of the young Emperor, and perhaps his restoration to the throne. Can’t wait.
Lian Hearn has also written a series called Tales of the Otori, five books set in feudal Japan that have sold over 4 million copies worldwide. On the strength of this tale they should be well worth looking out for.