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Emperor of the Eight Islands
The Tale of Shikanoko – Book I
Lian Hearn

Picador (Macmillan UK)
16 June 2016/ ISBN 9781509812479

Reviewed by Rachel A Hyde


In a fantasy version of Heian Period Japan, a series of seemingly unconnected events puts into motion a battle over the throne of the Eight Islands. Young Shikanoko sees his father killed by supernatural creatures as a young child and grows up in the care of his uncle. But the uncle wants the estate for himself and contrives to get rid of his nephew in the forest, but fate has other plans for him. Shikanoko instead ends up being a sorcerer in training, whose destiny is to interact with the main players in the coming conflict.

Anybody who enjoyed the international bestselling Tales of the Otori will be thrilled to discover this new series by Lian Hearn. It doesn’t matter either whether you have read the earlier books as this series is totally new, although also set in a slightly tweaked version of Japanese history. There is a lot in here, and unlike most fantasy series you won’t be propping a door open with this book. The author manages to say a lot in comparatively few words, and drops the reader straight into the story. Each chapter is told in the third person from the viewpoint of a particular character, and there are quite a few of these. There is a helpful list of characters at the beginning plus a map, and you will need these to sort everything out and remember who is who. Fortunately, this is mostly useful for the minor characters as the main ones are interesting and memorable individuals whose stories weave and intersect like the threads of a tapestry. While Shikanoko learns magic and enters the service of a number of different masters, a man has to give up his wife to his brother, a mysterious woman has to find five fathers for her five sons, and the emperor dies and an ambitious sorcerer priest plots to overthrow his rightful heir. Expect plenty of action, some lyrical descriptions and many surprises; this is one of the standout books of 2016 so far. I can’t wait for the next instalment.

Reviewed 2016