Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Review: Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn

Lian Hearn returns to a world of medieval Japan with a new series, The Tale of Shikanoko, set in the world of her earlier Otori series. Emperor of the Eight Islands introduces this new series, as it explores the great warrior tales of ancient Japan.

I have not read any of Lian Hearn’s previous books, though the Otori series has been on my shelf for years waiting for me to come around. During my recent trip to Japan, I spent some time in Northern Honshu in the region of the Great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which is the same region in Japan where Hearn drew inspiration for this series in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. This in combination with my having wanted to read Hearn’s books for years, made it an easy choice for me to begin with this book.

The Tale of Shikanoko is told in what feels like a very Japanese writing style – elegant, poetic, and minimalist. Which is to say, a style that I am not very used to. At first it felt very wooden, more like a ledger account than a story, lacking emotion and intimacy. However, as I grew used to the style I realized that this wasn’t the case. The minimalism of the story doesn’t lack the intimacy that I was looking for – it was just more subtle and shown a bit differently. By the end of book I had not only learned to appreciate the style of the story, but I can see how the approach makes emotional punches that much more effective.

This is a story of an older time – a feudal Japanese world, a time of divine emperors, magic and mysticism where the spirits of the land and those of people are much closer. A time when the world was a smaller place, and humans were a smaller presence. It is a time before (perhaps just before?) the arrival of temples of Buddhism and where the politics and rivals of the elite dominate everything.

In this, The Tale of Shikanoko is not just a great example of Asian-inspired medieval fantasy, but it’s a bridge for those deeply attached to fantasy inspired by medieval Britain and surrounding environs. The parallels are rather striking – a deep mystical tradition of living close the spirits of the land that is threatened by the arrival of a religion from abroad, and a feudal society dominated by the elite where rivals backed by traditions from abroad are at war. At the heart of this tale is a young man connected to the spirit of a great stag. It’s still early in the series to know just where it will end, but I think it’s not a stretch to believe that this young man is bound for some form of greatness, and quite likely, a tragic end. Before reading this book, I had never realized how the Arthurian traditions of Britain so closely parallel the warrior tales of Japan. This of course will lead to the inevitable decrees that The Tale of Shikanoko is the Japanese King Arthur, which is a disservice to both in spite of the very real parallels.

But it really misses the point for me to frame this story in terms of similarities to ‘Western’ traditions and that is not my intent. Merely an observation that I came to time and again while reading.

These are human tales – universal tales of power and love, betrayal and victory, loss and change. It’s a coming of age story, I believe it will become a story of revenge. A story of love, hate, betrayal, and everything in between.

Emperor of the Eight Islands is the first book in this series of four, all of which will be published in 2016. It is the opening, the origin story, the telling of how the stones are placed before the real game begins. It is the first quarter of a whole rather than an independent work, and as appropriate for the minimalist prose, it weighs in at only 270 pages. In many ways I’ve reviewed this book as if I know what’s ahead, which is untrue. I have not read the others in this series, though I now look forward to doing so. It is a universal tale, one that we’ve heard before, though the details are different. Of course most universal tales are tales of change, so what changes are in store?

As I said above, I look forward to finding out.

Tales of Shikanoko

Emperor of the Eight Islands: Amazon
Autumn Princess Dragon Child: Amazon
Lord of the Darkwood: Amazon
The Tengu’s Game of Go: Amazon

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