Book Review: Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn




Published: 2016

I came across this book when I was back in Canada and it immediately caught my eye. I went to Japan a year ago and loved the culture and land, so much so, that I didn’t want to go home. That might be the reason for my attraction to the novel’s cover and plot line I read at the back. I don’t speak Japanese and sadly don’t know the history as much as I would like to. I hoped that this book would give me a little taste of Japan, while being on the other side of the word.

The Emperor of the Eight Islands, is the first book, out of four, in The Tale of Shikanoko series by Lian Hearn (real name Gillian Rubinstein). The story takes place on a fictional island that strongly resembles medieval Japan, and apparently references real life events in Japan’s history. I did some digging on the author who I was surprised wasn’t Japanese but rather a British-Australian who was inspired to write the series after watching a sword and deer dance rehearsal in Iwate prefecture during her visit. She has previously written a fantastical historical-fiction series based in a fictional land resembling Japan, but she wanted to explore different Japanese warrior tales with this series.

I think that the author does a good job of trying to sound authentic, and by this I mean by using terminology and phrases that sounds like it would be written from that time period i.e. avoid using phrases such as ‘buzzing with electricity’ as electricity wouldn’t have existed in that time. The author had written on her website that:

“I wanted to try and recreate this medieval world where the human response to both nature and the spiritual world was one of awe and wonder.” (Lian’s Website)

I definitely feel that she accomplished that with this book. It merges medieval Japan with magical and spiritual elements like no other book I have read before has done. It makes it feel quite fantastical, similar amalgamation of real world with the magical world as Patrick Rothfuss has done, which the exception of his being much more comprehensive.

The book is about a boy, Shikanoko, who’s father dies and mother abandons them from the grief, who is then left under the care of his ambitious and hard-lined uncle.  Although, Shikanoko is the rightful heir to the land, he quickly realises that he:

“…would probably never be allowed to grow up, let alone inherit the estate” (8)

With his life being at the mercy of his uncle he realises that there is nothing left for him at his home, and contemplates escape. His suspicions are confirmed when on a hunting trip with his uncle he finds him pointing his bow at him rather than the stag they both spotted. That very stag saves his life by frantically jumping on top of him, taking the arrow instead and knocking him down a cliff by which time the uncle presumed him dead. And so begin his adventures…

I think the contents and general plot is fantastic, and I found myself breezing through the book. However, at 250 pages I think the novel falls short of being an epic saga that it’s trying to be. I wish it had more depth to the story and that we got a better glimpse into Shikanoko and some of the other supporting characters. I felt that it all happened quite quickly and ended too soon for my liking.

In terms of the writing style, I really quite enjoyed the neutral and disjointed manner in which the author wrote the book in. I appreciated it because it felt quite Japanese and reflective the era it was trying to write in; medieval Japan. At the same time, it lacked the level of detail (can’t believe I am saying this!) that enable me to get properly immersed in this tale and the fictional place she was trying to create. Maybe this was because I had it read it after Patrick Rothfuss’ novels which are so rich and detailed, so this stood out as a bit of negative for me.

Q: Have you read a book that has been based in a culture or region that you were interested in?



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