A mixed response to the first in the latest series from the popular Australian author.

emperorThe supernatural, medieval Japan of myth has been rich pickings for Lian Hearn with her phenomenally popular five-part series Tales of the Otori, which began with Across the Nightingale Floor.

The prolific New South Wales-based author has stepped back into that world with a new four-part series the Tale of Shikanoko, set 300 years before Otori.

Emperor of the Eight Islands, which is books 1 and 2, delves deep in the bitter battle between rival factions for the Emperor’s throne: the true heir, the child Yoshimori, who is forced into hiding; and his younger brother, who is supported by the powerful Prince Abbott and his supporters.

The young Shikanoko enters into the realm of magic when an attempt on his life leads him to a fateful encounter with a massive stag and a forest sorcerer deep in the mystical Darkwood.

Colourful and fascinating characters – warriors, ghosts, sorcerers and supernatural beings – are everywhere in this epic and quite violent tale of a battle for power that pits brother against brother.

The complexity of the world and the moral ambiguity of most of the key players are both real strengths and, as with Game of Thrones, Hearn is clearly unafraid to shock readers with the sudden death of major characters.

But it is often uncomfortable reading, and the storytelling seems at times flat and oddly matter-of-fact, in the way of an ancient myth or fairytale. This is not a stand-alone book, as there is no resolution at the end of this volume, but it won’t be a long wait for parts 3 and 4, which will be released this year as Lord of the Darkwood. 

This review first appeared in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine. The book was published in March 2016