Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.
His magical mask broken along with his body and spirit, Shikanoko returns to the forest in search of healing. He also plots revenge against his uncle, who left him to die, and the Prince Abbot who craves his service and his talents. He also reencounters Lady Tora who is about to give birth to otherworldly children who may be a blessing or a curse upon the land. Aki, uncertain anymore of her own feelings and who she considers trustworthy, does her best to look after the child Yoshimori, the true heir of the Eight Islands. She searches for aide in natural world, hoping the will of Heaven grants her help in protecting the boy so he might be restored to the throne to end the environmental and political upheaval.
Takaakira, right hand of the Miboshi Usurper, discovers Hina, a girl who is the daughter of his lord’s enemy. Risking everything, he secrets her away, teaching her and trying to justify the civil strife the Miboshi have caused, saying everyone will benefit from a more orderly society. Despite his blunders and squandering opportunities to prove his worth, Masachika acts as a spy for both sides of the civil war, seeking only to serve his own ends and retake the lands he believe are truly his. To this end, he’ll spy and betray and use anyone, so long as it serves to get him closer to his home.
All these characters, by choice or by fate, are drawn toward the capital of the Eight Islands to decide their own fate and the fate of the empire.
Much of the fun in this novel is watching how all the character threads in the previous novel get pulled together. It makes a reader think it and Emperor of the Eight Islands should have been one novel as they tell a complete story. There’s a deal more fighting in this novel, with several duels, murders, and aggressive confrontations. Even though the war is mostly over, there is more violence this time around. In an interesting turn, though, the climax rests on a character going to present himself unarmed before the antagonist in an attempt to secure the lives of other innocent parties. At the point readers would most expect the clash of swords, something else happens.
The plot is also clearer to the reader as well as the characters. When confronting what he needs to do, Shikanoko thinks big. A character asks him if he wants to seek revenge for Kiyoyori, and Shikanoko responds, “’I do, and I will. But first I need to kill my uncle,’ Shika replied, and thought, And then I have to destroy the Prince Abbot, and—he hardly dared to put his longing into words, even silent ones—find Akihime and marry her, and restore Yoshimori to the throne” (120-1). The scope is bracing and a little ludicrous, but it sets out the course of action for a protagonist for the second half of the novel.
A thread that runs through this novel is the idea that there is a cost to doing what is right. Often that cost is personal, but through it characters prove what worth and integrity they have. Hina and Aki both suffer in trying to save other people. Takaakira pays the ultimate price for saving the life of one girl (240). Masachika, conversely, suffers because of his unscrupulous choices, while constantly putting the blame on other people or even fate. He usually refuses to admit his own wrongdoings, which helps him rationalize his continued misdeeds.
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A companion to the previous thematic thread is that of the sadness that accompanies this personal cost. Shikanoko and Aki in particular reflect with melancholy on what has past, wondering if they could have been better. When using the mask to achieve victory, the reader sees, “A profound sadness swept over [Shikanoko], as though he already saw all he would lose” (263). The cost of trying to see through all his goals and put the land right is indeed steep. Notice Masachika, the most self-serving character, takes what he wants and expresses no sincere regret. Even if he did, readers known him to be a liar and cheat who should not be trusted.
Kiba no Hoko: The Way of the Fang
Again the novel suggests not only a natural order but also a social one. The usurpation of the throne is followed by natural disasters, and even Takaakira who is with the usurper thinks they must have angered heaven (56). Aki says as much to him later (199). This view is supported when monkeys and horses protect Yoshimori in dangerous situations, leading characters to believe he is chosen by heaven. In its particulars, readers may not reflect much on this because it regards Yoshimori, who looks like a may grown into a reasonable man. As a theory, though, it is easy to see how this mindset can be easily abused to support an oppressive status quo.
The proliferation of magical items, each unique and with its own purpose is fascinating. It also just as interesting to watch them pass from character to character and how they affect their behavior. The Stag Mask and Sesshin’s eyes, for example, are used and misused by various characters, which all lead to the climax in the Prince Abbot’s temple. The talismans themselves trace a path through the novel as much as the characters do, adding to the layer of magic and unique flavor of the novel.
The Mandate of Heaven
This book is a great and unique piece of fantasy fiction. It and Emperor of the Eight Islands should be read in sequence to get the full effect of the characters arcs that Hearn crafted.
Hearn, Lian. Autumn Princess, Dragon Child. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016.
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© 2017 Seth Tomko