So I walked into a bookstore looking for a pen and walked out with 2 books, one of them being Emperor of the Eight Islands. The blurb on the back really intrigued me – it sounded liked a darker sort of fairy tale, but set in a fantasy land based on feudal Japan.
The blurb on this one is a pretty accurate representation of the book! I really enjoyed the book – I’ve mentioned this a few dozen times before, I’m sure, but I love fairy tales of all sorts. I liked especially that it was set in a Japanese-based society; I feel like that drew me in more than it would have if it was set in a European-based one, simply for the novelty and the fun of the world building.
The story follows Kazumaru, the son of a lord who dies having lost a game of Go to tengu (legendary Japanese bird-men.) Kazumaru’s uncle takes over the estates and, in the traditions of fairy tales everywhere, does not want to relinquish his title back to his nephew when Kazumaru comes of age. The story truly begins when Kazumaru decides to run away and find his own fate in the world, a world being torn apart by a civil war and plots for the throne.
Told in third person, the story shifts frequently from Kazumaru’s point of view to many other characters, though Kazumaru’s actions remain the driving force for the plot. There’s sorcerers, royalty, mystical beings, magic, grudges, love, destiny, and songs about dragon children. Essentially, all the components for a good fairy tale are incorporated.
Hearn’s writing also lends itself well to the style. It actually reminds me a little bit of Robin McKinley – the same sort of slightly distant, almost impersonal approach to the characters, even as the reader learns their thoughts and feelings. In an extended fairy tale, where the plot is of utmost importance, this style can work incredibly well and indeed I very much appreciated Hearn’s approach. All of the human characters were complex and well developed and the non-human ones felt non-human because they were less complex.
Though terrible things happen in the story, I wasn’t necessarily emotionally invested in the actions. This isn’t a bad thing – I like how it gave me clarity and room to think about what was happening. It also meant I was less likely to rationalize away a character’s behavior, which, I think, is important to this particular story. The characters, Kazumaru included, often do both amazing and horrible things and this distance allowed me to step away from the good vs. evil dichotomy and not categorize the characters but instead evaluate each action on its own merit. Though there is a sense of a divine hand in this story, and from that a clear wrong and right, there isn’t such a sense of moral right and wrong and I loved the way the story made me think about each action to see how I truly felt about it.
I don’t know why, but I was somewhat disappointed to find that this was the beginning of a short series. Though it does work as a self-contained story, there’s clearly room for the next novel – however, I felt throughout that this was a standalone and I have no idea why! I will be reading the rest of the series though.
Also, this is a book where the first chapter is very indicative of the entirety of the story, so if you’re on the fence, you should be able to tell by just reading a few pages whether it’s the book for you.
If you like plot-driven fantasies and a strong fairy tale vibe, you should definitely give this book a read. If you’re not into violence or if you want a strong, intimate emotional connection to the main characters, then, alas, this book may not be the one for you.
Have you read it? Let me know what you think in the comments!