Review: Emperor of the Eight Islands (The Tale of Shikanoko, #1+2) by Lian Hearn

Kazumaru is about to be killed by his uncle, who wants to take over the family’s estate once and for all, but a stag saves him in the last second. What follows is a tale of magic, demons and political intrigue that sees a family toppled, a mysterious woman looking for five fathers for her children, and a powerful  priest meddling in the politics of the country.


I picked this up  because I felt like reading something inspired by Japanese culture, and since Emperor of the Eight Islands is set in a fictional medieval Japan it seemed perfect. Besides, I loved Hearn’s Tales of the Otori series when I read it years ago.

Emperor of the Eight Islands weaves a wonderful tale of intrique and politics. The world is built quite well, and while my knowledge of medieval Japan is limited, the feeling of the world checks out against my experience with manga set in similar settings.

The dialogue was a bit too stilted for my tastes in the beginning, but as I read on the overall style of the narration drew me in and the dialogue fit in very well with that after all. In fact, the narration is one of my favourite things about this book (and it was already a favourite in Tales of the Otori if memory serves right), because to me it just fits in so well with the overall world building and the characters. I’m not sure if I’m bringing it across properly, but it’s a narrative voice that reminds me of some of my favourite story-telling in Japanese media, and I just really love that.

The characters are a bit of a weak point in my opinion. Some of them are amazingly complex and interesting. However, I felt that some of them could have been explored a bit more, and were kept a little one dimensional for my tastes.

Another thing that I already loved in Tales of the Otori and that has carried over to The Tale of Shikanoko so far, is the complete avoidance of dropping random Japanese words into the text. To me there’s nothing that throws me off more than throwing in random Japanese words and ‘-san’s and ‘-chans’ just for the sake of it (and italicizing them on top of it as so many books do). It just reads a lot like something a 16-year-old weeaboo would do (believe me, I’ve been there myself). There’s stories where it’s appropriate and actually realistic to throw in words in other languages (bilingual characters come to mind, or multilingual and multicultural societies like the one in Ian McDonald’s Luna series) but a world that is practically free from outsiders and where everyone speaks the same language is not the place for this. Believe me, we know that we’re in Japan, even if you only use English words.
Sorry for the tangent, my point is that Hearn does not use Japanese words and honorifics just for the sake of it, which makes the world building and the text in itself so much better.

Overall I really liked Emperor of the Eight Islands, and while it’s probably not the most amazing book out there it does a great job at things I’ve seen fail before.

Rating: ★★★★☆ (4 Stars)

Additional Information


Publication Date: 26 January 2016
Publisher: Picador
Format: Paperback
Page Count: 432
Genre: Fantasy
ISBN: 9781509812790


An ambitious warlord leaves his nephew for dead and seizes his lands.
A stubborn father forces his younger son to surrender his wife to his older brother.
A mysterious woman seeks five fathers for her children.
A powerful priest meddles in the succession to the Lotus Throne.

These are the threads of an intricate tapestry in which the laws of destiny play out against a backdrop of wild forest, elegant court, and savage battlefield. Set in a mythical medieval Japan inhabited by warriors and assassins, ghosts and guardian spirits, Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn is a brilliantly imagined novel, full of drama and intrigue – and it is just the beginning of an enthralling, epic adventure: The Tale of Shikanoko.



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