Emperor of the Eight Islands
There are those who find books with line-drawn maps of imaginary lands and extensive character lists irresistible, and those who shudder at the very thought. The latter group may dismiss Lian Hearn’s new novel, Emperor of the Eight Islands (the first in her new Tales of Shikanoko series) out of hand, opening as it does with both a map and three whole pages of character names. But that would be their loss, as fans and reluctant initiates alike will find this a refreshing antidote to the Anglo-mediaevalist pomposity of many lesser fantasy novels.
Shikanoko, the novel’s nominal hero, is a charismatic figure, but he mostly remains a cipher. Instead, it is the female characters who come to the fore, pulsing with thwarted desires and secret ambitions – although they do tend to be dealt hard fates, including one (apparently genre-mandatory) rape scene, which will leave a bad taste in many readers’ mouths.
For Hearn, perhaps more familiar to older fantasy/sci-fi readers as Gillian Rubinstein, setting a fantasy novel in Japan is clearly not some gimmick to differentiate her work in a crowded fantasy market. Her stories and characters are inherently Japanese; their actions shaped and constrained by the pseudo-historical context. Hearn has herself remarked on the difficulties a non-Japanese author faces when writing a novel that is deeply immersed in that country’s rich history and traditions. It could easily seem appropriative or idealised, and although readers will certainly judge the politics of Hearn’s work for themselves, her years of research and abiding respect for Japanese culture are always evident.
One of the great joys of genre novels is that they usually care deeply about plot, satisfying the innately human desire for story. And there is story aplenty here. In fact describing this novel as “fast-paced” would be an understatement. Breakneck might be more apt. It’s hard to feel the pathos of a character’s noble death when it seems as though we only met them a page-and-a- half ago. Yet the unfolding events are so fascinating, the writing so lithe and seductive, that the blistering pace is mostly forgivable, especially when it mercifully slows a little around the halfway mark.
There’s no need to have read Hearn’s earlier Otori series, set in the same remarkable fantasy world, to enjoy this one. Indeed, her new epic seems sure to recruit a fresh legion of fans. DV
Hachette, 448pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 12, 2016 as "Lian Hearn, Emperor of the Eight Islands". Subscribe here.