The first thing you’ll notice on opening The Tale of Shikanoko: Emperor of the Eight Islands is the long list of characters and character names. It is, at this first glance, intimidating. It need not be. Lian Hearn keeps the transitions between characters and plotlines clean and clear enough that it is entirely possible to follow events, and the characters are distinct and memorable without the chart. This is an impressive feat, as there are a number of threads running through Emperor of the Eight Islands.
It is set in a fantasy version of medieval Japan just as the emperor is dying. Powerful forces back both his stated heir and another. Elsewhere, a young man is deprived of his inheritance when his uncle attempts to kill him and leaves him for dead, a father forces one son to divorce his wife and give her to his brother. A sorcerer plans on gaining power. Magic of many kinds, wielded by many people, is in play. The gods may be taking an interest, and various spirits are definitely involved. The protagonists are left to navigate this tangle as best they can, trying to choose sides, stay alive, and keep hold of some power.
Fate and magic both play a heavy role here. A man may make a choice and find that a powerful sorcerer has overruled his actions. A woman may find herself traded between brothers without having a say in the matter. In one sense, this makes for a peculiarly passive set of protagonists: There is no character who does not find him or herself pushed along by powerful forces and forced into movements they have no say in. On the other, Hearn shows how these people handle the forces around them, make what choices they can, and move in the path they have. This makes for an engrossing read, one where the reader has no more idea than the characters themselves where the plot is going.
Emperor of the Eight Islands is recommended for people who enjoy historical fiction, fantasy, or prose epics.
Emperor of the Eight Islands: Book 1 in the Tale of Shikanoko is available for order on Amazon. To order, click the link in the title!