An Interesting Beginning, But Nothing More Than That – A Review of Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn

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I have something of a weakness for world mythologies. Part of it is because of my mother: the first time I was hospitalised for dengue, one of the books she brought was an overview of Egyptian,Greek, and Roman mythology. This laid down the groundwork for my subsequent interest in both mythology and history, since it is impossible to really appreciate one without also learning the other. Most of it, however, really has to do with my fascination with stories – all kinds of stories, really, though I will admit a certain partiality to stories of wonder and magic. Mythology definitely fits that description.

Aside from the usual stories offered up by Western mythology and folklore, in my tweens and teens I quickly became very interested in Japanese mythology and folklore. Thanks to the steady stream of anime showing on local and cable television at the time, it was practically impossible not to want to know about the stories that formed the background for shows like Inuyasha, Yu Yu Hakusho, and Fushigi Yûgi, to name a few. Fortunately, I had the good luck to go to a university with an excellent library, and it was there that I found translations of books like the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, the primary texts for Japanese mythology, as well as many other books related to folklore. As with all the mythologies and folkloric tales I’ve read, Japanese mythology and folklore is endlessly fascinating, and endlessly malleable as well. Since I was watching anime and reading manga at more or less the same time I was doing this deep dive into the background material for what I was watching and reading, I was seeing how the storytellers behind manga and anime were using that material for their own purposes.

When I heard that Lian Hearn, author of the Tales of the Otori, was releasing a new series, I sat up and took notice. Though the word around bookish circles is that the Tales of the Otori is quite good, I haven’t really thought to pick it up because the story, as it is outlined in the books’ blurbs, just doesn’t quite strike my fancy. I may decide to read it, eventually, but right now I am far more interested in Hearn’s latest series, The Tale of Shikanoko.

Set in a world that looks and functions a lot like 12th-century Japan, The Tale of Shikanoko begins with Emperor of the Eight Islands. This novel sets the stage by introducing the key characters: a boy who gains immense power; a warrior princess destined for greatness; a warlord with a duty he cannot forswear; and the warlord’s daughter, whose path lies in shadow. Their destinies are entangled together in ways none of them can foresee, one that runs a road through love and betrayal, power and ruin, war and death.

One of the first, most noticeable things about this novel is its tone. It reads rather high and distant, more akin to a fairytale, or even the prose retelling of an epic. Take this excerpt, for example, which happens early in the novel:

There was a famous old stag with a fine set of antlers that Sademasa had long desired, but the creature was cunning and cautious and never allowed itself to be encircled. This would be the year, Sademasa declared, that the stag would surrender to him.

He took his nephew, his favorite retainer, Nobuto, and one other man. They went on foot, for the terrain was too rough even for the sure-footed horses that grazed on the lower slopes of Kumayama. … Kazumaru expected his uncle to grow impatient, but instead Sademasa became almost jovial, as though he were about to be relieved of a burden he had carried for a long time. At night the men told ghost stories about tengu and mountain sorcerers, and all the ways young boys had disappeared. Kazumaru swore he would not let himself be killed along with the stag. He hardly dared sleep but sometimes fell into a kind of waking dream and heard the clack of Go stones and saw the eagle eyes of tengu turned toward him.

Despite the fact that the language is clearly far more complex than what the reader might expect from the average Brothers Grimm fairytale, it is still such that it is possible to hear the unwritten “Once upon a time” at the very beginning of the excerpt.

On one hand, I think I understand why Hearn chose to use this particular tone in writing the story. From what I can see, the series appears to be based on the Heike Monogatari, or The Tale of the Heike to give its translated English title. It is a creative retelling of an actual historical event called the Gempei War: the struggle between the powerful Taira and Minamoto clans for control of Japan, which occurred in the latter decades of the 12th century. Due to this, plus the fact that it is intended to be performed by a biwa hōshi (“lute priest”, a monk who performed oral literature while accompanying himself on a biwa, commonly called a “Japanese lute”), it has sometimes been called “the Japanese Iliad.” (For interested readers, translator Royall Tyler has published a translation that adheres to the performance style in which the original would have been told; there is also a prose version retold by Eiji Yoshikawa for those who prefer to read it in that format.)

This choice of source material may have exerted some influence on Hearn’s decision to go with a higher, more distant tone. Since most epics (including the Heike Monogatari) are told in third-person omniscient, as are the many folktales and fairytales from which Hearn derives the other elements of this story, it seems logical that the novel itself should adopt a similar tone. However, this does not quite work with Hearn’s decision to tell the story through the points-of-view of selected characters – much in the same way that the A Song of Ice and Fire books are narrated. In George R. R. Martin’s series, the reader is privy to the thoughts of the character currently telling the story. He or she is aware, for the most part, of what that character is thinking and feeling for as long as said character is the one narrating the story.

That does not happen in this novel. While Hearn uses point-of-view characters to tell the story, the narrative still holds them at arm’s length in much the same way as a fairytale or folktale or even an epic poem. While this certainly works with one of the novel’s (if not the series’) most crucial themes (that one’s fate is inevitable and inescapable), I think this decision rather unfortunate. The distant tone means that it may be difficult to truly get to know, and therefore genuinely connect with, the characters. Take the following excerpt, for example:

“Will I never lie with you again?”

“No, our work together is finished.”

She stroked his face tenderly as though he were her child.

He was so unused to affection, he felt near tears.

I would love to know what is going on in the characters’ heads as this happens (or at least, in the “he” mentioned here, because it is his point-of-view being used in the story), but because of Hearn’s chosen narrative style, I cannot do that. I find this a little sad, as the characters themselves are very interesting, but due to the distance from them, I feel as if I cannot truly get to know them as well as I might like.

However, this novel has a much larger problem: one to do with pacing. When I picked up this novel, I went into it fully expecting to have to wait the usual amount of time for its sequel’s arrival – a full year, a year and a half at most, as long as all was well with the writer and publisher. However, I was willing to wait that long because, as tends to be the case with series, the books tend to be substantial enough in and of themselves to make the wait worthwhile. However, as I continued to read this novel, I began to realise that I was going through it at a much faster pace than I felt I ought to. Midway through reading it I got suspicious, and after a little poking around on the Internet I learned that Hearn intends to release all four books this year – implying, therefore, that Hearn had enough material for at most two books, but for some odd reason she (or her publisher) decided to cut the series up into four and sell each of those parts as individual books. This was further confirmed by the fact that the Australian editions compile books one and two in one volume, and books three and four in another.

What this means for readers who pick up the series as a four-parter, rather than a two-parter, is that this novel, the first in the series, ends a touch more abruptly than is necessary. There is a building sense of excitement and direction for a majority of this novel, but that is cut short when the reader reaches the ending. While I am willing to accept a cliffhanger, I tend to expect that the lead-up to that cliffhanger is substantial enough to be worth it. Unfortunately, that is not the case with this novel. If I had gone straight into the second novel (or if I had read the first book of the two-volume Australian edition), I suppose I would not feel so unsatisfied, but since I am reading the four-part version, I feel as if the book lacks any heft – heft that its narrative style suggested was there. I feel as though I was promised an epic tale, and while I did get some of it, by the time I finished this book I had the vague sense of being cheated, somehow, out of that epic tale the rest of the book promised.

Overall, Emperor of the Eight Islands is a promising beginning to what will hopefully be a beautiful, epic tale, but it is just that: a beginning, and nothing more. It has an assortment of problems, but most of it lies in the way the series has been cut up: if the reader picks up the four-part version instead of the two-part Australian edition, then he or she may feel as though the novel promised a more epic tale than what the book actually delivers. The narrative is also slightly problematic, in that the style prevents the reader from really getting attached to any of the characters, but that is a relatively smaller problem compared to the pacing issue. Still, there is some potential here (or at least, I hope so), and I will continue on to the next book as soon as I find a copy of it.

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