Lian Hearn’s Emperor of the Eight Islands: The Tale of Shikanoko is the beginning of a fantasy epic filled with Japanese mysticism and layered with fable-like qualities.
While Kazumaru, young heir to Kumayama, is thought to die in a hunting expedition, a stag breaks his fall and melds its departing spirit with him, transforming him into Shikanoko. Taken in by Matsutani Lord Kiyoyori, he soon finds himself in the midst of an epic struggle as Miboyoshi clan leaders Lord Aritomo and the Prince Abbot seize control of the capital, Ryosonji, creating conflict with the rightful rulers, the Kakizuki clan.
More than just a struggle between clans, Emperor of the Eight Islands is a tapestry of character drama, depicting how such conflict causes tensions below the surface to rise and turn even loyal friends against each other. This is well depicted from the large cast’s varying points of view. Each character is presented as a complex entity with agendas of their own, which often conflicts with those of another character readers have come to love. These varying perspectives show that none of these characters are completely good or evil.
Unfortunately, the overarching plot is only fully evident at the end of the story, which means it seems meandering at times. However, the ongoing character development and conflicts alleviates this.
With such a huge cast of characters, readers who don’t familiarise themselves with the character index are liable to become lost, especially when some characters are not introduced until well into the story. Further, when new characters are introduced, large amounts of backstory are given, slowing what is otherwise a rapid pace. This is necessary given the story’s large scope. Unfortunately, some of the otherworldly concepts, like Gen, Shikanoko’s half-man half-dog companion, are never fully established.
This volume contains two books from the series. The first establishes the world, mythology, and main characters but at times can be erratic as readers move from one character or event to another with little room to breathe. Fortunately, this settles down in the second book, which focuses on key characters and their evolving relationships.
Despite these issues, Emperor of the Eight Islands contains a lot of depth in the world it constructs from Japanese mythology and presents readers with engaging characters. Hopefully future volumes will expand this intriguing saga. If you enjoy Japanese mysticism, I recommend it.