Lord of the Darkwood is a somber continuation of The Tale of Shikanako. After retaking his home and gathering followers, Shikanoko attempted to save the Autumn princess and failed. Angered and saddened by his attempt, he has abandoned his home and his followers, including his “sons” in the Spider Clan whom he has ordered never to see him again. For much of the novel, he is grappling with his failure while the few followers who remain with him try to convince him to act. Hina has lost her safe home and has to care for herself and a child in a dangerous world. The five brothers of the Spider Clan, left without anyone to guide them, have begun to quarrel and separate, seeking new goals. The clans continue to quarrel, and the kingdom suffers from the absence of its true ruler.
By this point in The Tale of Shikanoko, it is impossible not to be bound up in the story, hoping each of the characters will find happiness—though, since they are not all on the same side in the struggle, that is not possible. The Spider Clan has a lot of space in this book. Hearn convincingly portrays a group of not-quite human brothers, showing them as separate from humanity in the same way and yet possessing distinct personalities and drives. A tengu also becomes a major character in this book, and some of what has been going on outside the human sphere begins to be apparent.
Lian Hearn handles her plotlines well. Her chosen style of writing is that of a series of straightforward statements. In some ways, the book reads like a translation rather than an English original. This does help convey the sense that the events are from long ago in another world. Hearn develops her characters and shows their point of view, yet the tale maintains an air of the legendary rather than the present.
Lord of the Darkwood is the third book in The Tale of Shikanoko, and it would make for a very confusing first book. Readers interested in Japanese mythology, alternate history, and world-building should go back to the beginning with Emperor of the Eight Islands and start there.
Lord of the Darkwood comes out from FSG on August 9. To order from Amazon, click the link in the title. You may also find it in your local bookstore or library (and if it’s not there, you can always ask!).