Review of Emperor of the Eight Islands
Years after the mysterious disappearance of his lordly father, Shikanoko is set up and left for dead by his ambitious uncle. He survives, is rescued, and used by mysterious Lady Tora and hermit sorcerer, Shisoku, to craft a magical talisman from the skull of a stag that prevented Shikanoko from dying. He’s given some instruction and sent under the tutorship of a bandit chief who is desperate for his own magical artifact.
Aki’s instruction on being a temple priestess is interrupted by political turmoil when the Prince Abbot, the empire’s spiritual leader, claims divine mandate has chosen a different heir, meaning Aki must take the boy, Yoshimori, and save him from the usurpers and forces loyal to the Prince Abbot. She finds herself adrift in a world where almost none of her training has practical application, forcing her to use her wits to keep herself and the true heir alive.
Kiyoyori, lord of a strategic holding, finds himself caught between national and familial loyalties as he’s pressured by claimants to the throne to pick a side even as his brother works with the usurpers. With his loyalty and sense of honor tested by the civil strife and the alluring Lady Tora, he looks to maintain his dignity in dark times.
Six Demon Bag
The novel works a fantasy that’s told like folklore and is reminiscent of Wizard of Earthsea. There is plenty of violence and political turmoil, but the focus usually remains personal. Readers rarely see big battles because most characters live on the fringes of these nation-shaping events. The setting is full of spirits, sorcerers and magical items, which add a flavor of the fantastic from the start.
The narrative moves fast, so the story almost never lags. Elmore Leonard gave advice to writers, saying "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip," which Hearn has taken to heart. The only drawback is that because many characters also strive for a masculine stoicism, the affect seems flat. The casual nature of magic also means the reader may glide right over something extraordinary because the characters and narration treat it offhandedly. Of course someone can make a magic talisman from the decapitated head of a great man; everyone knows that. Of course there is a dragon child in the lake. Of course someone can challenge the Tengu demons to a board game.
Many character take actions in the novel, motivated by the fear of looking foolish. Of course, acting to not appear a fool often leads to being a fool. For example, a young soldier goes to confront malicious spirits, “or allow my name to be remembered as a coward’s” (223). Similarly, Masachika charges into a trap despite that he and his men are exhausted because he’s motivated to look like a lord among men that don’t respect him (227). This theme gives the book a universal appeal because so much myth and folklore features this same theme. See the Icelandic epic Laxdaela Saga for evidence, especially regarding men and their egos being manipulated by women.
There is an unintended conservatism in the book. When the usurper takes power, there are natural disasters, and many of the protagonists explain this is the wrath of Heaven. It is pointed out several times, however, that the Miboshi usurpers are more effective lords and administrators in part because of their instance on education, literacy, and record keeping. They establish effective courts and adjudicate disputes without resorting to honor-duals and misguided violence. The fact that they might be better leaders, though, is discounted because of the way they side with the Prince Abbot and support his choice for heir rather than the “true” heir. The effect of these arguments is to suggest the status quo, regardless of its morality, oppression, or other discrepancies, is the true mandate of Heaven. There is doubtlessly more to unpack in this political-philosophical-ethical argument, and a reader would hope it gets explored more as the series continues.
Putting on the Stag Mask
One issue readers may have is the problem of character names. It isn’t the Japanese names or conventions that may prove troublesome, but some characters have multiple names and earn new ones as they novel progresses. There is a list of characters in the front, but this an imperfect means of keep track of the major and minor personages. It doesn’t reach Game of Thrones levels of absurdity, but one wonders if this is a worthwhile authorial choice.
This is the first volume, but it feels more like an incomplete work that was arbitrarily cut. Almost no major plot points are resolved in the course of this novel. Even The Fellowship of the Ring, which is conceived as the first part of a whole work, ends at a particular point with specific resolution to plot and character arcs. Emperor of the Eight Islands is less strong on this account. What is noteworthy about this situation is that Hearn’s Otori books are also a series, yet each tell a complete tale, like Across the Nightingale Floor.
The Scroll of Heaven
The novel is worth reading as a unique fantasy adventure with a lot of interesting flavor and thematic developments. The characters are well-drawn, even if some of them disappear for long stretches of time. The mid-stream interruption of the plot may be seen as poor planning or a cliffhanger depending on the generosity of the reader, but with a book this fun and interesting, it’s difficult to not be generous.
Hearn, Lian. Emperor of the Eight Islands. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
Leonard, Elmore. "Writers on Writing; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points, and Especially Hooptedoodle." New York Times, July 16, 2001.
© 2017 Seth Tomko