Emperor of the Eight Islands: The Tale of Shikanoko
By Lian Hearn (Gillian Rubinstein)
Published in 2016, Emperor of the Eight Islands (EEI from here on) is a fantasy story set in I Can't Believe It's Not Japan. Released under the name Lian Hearn, the writer, Ms. Rubinstein, was born in England in 1942 growing up in the countryside and splitting her teen years between English boarding schools and her mother and stepfather's home in Nigeria (her father died when she was 14). She studied languages in Oxford and worked in London and Europe as an editor, freelance journalist and film critic before moving to Australia in 1973, she remains there with her husband Philip with whom she has had 3 children, all adult now. She released her first book in 1986 (Space Demons which won a number of awards and was fairly popular), since then she has written over 30, as well as 8 plays and a vast number of articles and short stories. She began writing under the name Lian Hearn in 2001 when she released Across the Nightingale floor, which was the first of a five book series set in a fictional feudal Japan. As I mentioned earlier EEI is also set in a Japanese style setting but is a fantasy. Ms. Rubinstein has insisted that she is not a fantasy writer and these books shouldn't be necessarily considered fantasy. While I can't speak to her other books, in this book the main character gains magic powers through a ritual where he is imbued with power through a deer bone mask. There are spirits, magical creatures and more. This book is a fantasy and I have to wonder at attempts to declare it as anything but some strange denial. I have to wonder if this is part of the idea that fantasy novels cannot be adult or serious.
This idea lead Scott Bakker's professors to mock his stories as children's books and for others to suggest that you cannot be writing anything with any real depth or impact if you dare put an elf or have some magic knocking around. Which frankly is a ridiculous idea. Yes, there are plenty of silly or bad novels published in the genres of sci-fi and fantasy but to be blunt more than a fair share of “serious literature” is made up of self-indulgent pretentious crap that could have issued forth from your average three year old. We all remember the books that our english teachers insist are great but you find yourself utterly loathing. Ghettoizing genres just because we don't care for them is a sign of immaturity in my opinion. I don't care for romance novels but I won't declare the genre worthless, I'm sure there's at least two or three romance novels worth reading, just damn if I'm gonna spend the time to find them. Let me actually talk about the book.
EEI has a host of characters who all share several things in common. They tend to be unlucky, whether it's in having their father's die young and thus turning them into a victim for power grasping uncles; or having fathers who decide to break your little brother's marriage so you can marry his wife; or having an enemy with vast magic powers and royal protection. Secondly, they all make terrible decisions or convince themselves that they have no choice but to make terrible decisions. The second one is honestly very true to life and I have to congratulate Mrs. Rubinstein on capturing that so well. I mean the book opens with a terrible decision when the main character Shikanko's father decides to go play Go with a group of tengu (Japanese Birdmen, who sort straddle the line between goblins and fairies in their mythology). As you might guess, Shikanko's father never makes it back and his mother decides to get herself to a nunnery leaving the boy in the not-so-tender care of his Uncle. When Shikanko (side note, that's not the story that Shikanko starts the story with, but since it's the one he uses most often and the one he prefers, it's the one I'm using for this review) approaches manhood, his Uncle decides it would be best if Shikanko had a hunting accident. Fortunately, he's as skilled at creating hunting accidents as he is an honest and honorable man, being perhaps the only person to actually kill a deer when he was just using it as cover for an assassination attempt. Then again, Shikanko's Uncle was only able to take power when circumstances cleared away all opponents so maybe I'm expecting too much of him when I expect him to be able to kill an unarmed teenage boy. In fact, he makes such a hash of it, not only killing a member of the wrong species but the way the killing took place allowed Shikanko to be able to access the mystic power of the deer. Shikanko encounters a mountain sorcerer who, in a long magical ritual, carves him a mask from the bones of the deer that died in his place, allowing him to become something much greater than he ever would have without that assassination attempt. Thus our story beings.
The main driver of the story is a dynastic dispute over who should inherit the throne. The Emperor is old and frail and while the Crown Prince has a lot of supporters and is reasonably competent, he's got enemies. A member of the royal family, known as the Prince Abbot (because he's a Prince and an Abbot) is a wealthy and politically powerful man who is also a powerful wizard. Served by monks, warriors, and magical creatures such as talking birds called werehawks who serve has his spies and couriers. The Prince Abbot is looking to place his own candidate (a nephew of his) on the throne. Not himself of course, as being a Buddhist Monk, he can't hold a throne. Our next character is the guy who pulls Shikanko into these politics: Lord Kiyoyuri of Kuromori. Lord Kiyoyuri is a man with bad luck, who makes worse decisions. His bad luck comes in the form of the death of his first wife and his rather cold blooded father. While Kiyoyuri is in deep mourning of a woman he cared for and loved, his father decides not to waste an unmarried child. So he announces to both his sons (Kiyoyuri and Masachika) that he's going to have Masachika's marriage broken up and have Kiyoyuri marry the girl instead. To Kiyoyuri's credit, he argues against this but being a Feudal Japanese Noble, gives in when his Dad puts his foot down. I expected this but found it disappointing as I would really like for someone to just “Well, yes we could do that honored parent and I could also take my knife and make myself head of the clan in a sudden and tragic homicidal stabbing accident. Let's both agree we should back off from having ideas for a while okay?”
Sadly not to be, instead both brothers yield to their father's will. This also means Masachika gets sent off to a rival clan to marry their daughter. Splitting your kids up and sending them over to rival teams was actually a fairly common practice in Japan back then. The rationale being: that way no matter who won the fight, at least one family member stood a fairly good chance of being alive and in the good graces of the winner. It... worked often enough to justify the scheme. This leads us to the Lady Tama, who found herself passed between brothers like she was a football. I honestly appreciate the story giving her some agency and goals. She makes her own bad decisions, which I won't spoil but I will say she misjudged which brother was the better man and by the end of the story she knows it. She is also bound and determined to keep her family lands and home and if she has to do so over everyone's dead bodies so much the worse for them. I respect someone who has clear goals and is willing to commit to them. That said, this book is clearly a prelude to the rest of her story so she doesn't get much time on the page. Most of it is given to Kiyoyuri and Shikanko.
Both of them get pulled into the civil war that flares up in this book but from different ends so to speak. In Kiyoyuri's case his story is a fairly straight forward and mundane one. He is a feudal lord trying to keep faith with his lord. He does this by fighting and bringing his own men who can fight in support of his lord's cause. Things get complicated when his son gets kidnapped and he has to make decisions that he frankly isn't built to make wisely and his family pays for it. The fantastic elements of the story weave in and out of this hitting Kiyoyuri without warning and he is utterly defenseless against them. Nor does he understand these mystic powers and the people who use them. Despite this, he tries to do what he believes he’s suppose to. Shikanko on the other hand is on a very mystic and strange journey that would seem to have next to nothing to do with anyone else except for the fact that our Prince Abbot keeps pulling him in. The Prince Abbot flat out wants Shikanko working for him and is willing to train him and teach him and reward him if that's what it takes. He's also willing to utterly destroy him and tear him apart if that's what it takes too. So Shikanko has to decide in this book if he's going to take a position as the student and servant of a man willing to murder thousands of people to put a puppet on a throne or fight a man who commands armies both magical and mundane. He has to make this decision while struggling to understand just what it is that he's been given and what the stakes are in this game. In short he has to make a decision when he's the least equipped to and at the worst possible time to get it wrong. Isn't that just life in a nutshell?
Emperor of the Eight Islands is an interesting and fast-paced story where Mrs. Rubinstein has managed to capture the feeling and sights of feudal Japan fairly well and infuse it with a magical side that is wondrous and strange with amazing powers and dark secrets that people will kill for. That said there is a bit too much going on in this book. At 250 pages, a number of the characters and stories are basically just set up. Almost half the book is used to set up stories that will be told in sequel books and not brought to any satisfying conclusion in this one. Which you know, does affect the grade. If you're a fan of Japanese culture or you would like some magic heavy political skullduggery in a book that doesn't imitate a brick, then this is one is for you. Just keep in mind to see everything through you are committing to buying at least one more book. I'm putting Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn at a C+. It's an interesting story and it's going interesting places but if it's going to do this much set up you could at least take another 20 or 40 pages to bring everyone to a good stopping point.
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.