The rightful Emperor of the Eight Islands is lost. His few remaining allies are scattered; most too broken to be of any use to anyone. An usurper holds the throne. And while he remains in power against the decree of Heaven, the land suffers through a terrible drought.
The true Emperor, Yoshimori’s staunchest ally, Autumn Princess, is dead. His other defender, Lord Kiyoyori’s spirit has been confined to a white stallion. Shikanoko, the deer’s child, is his last hope. But the heavily antlered stag mask that had given Shikanoko great power has now cleaved to his face, and so far no one he has come across has had the power to remove it.
Half-man and half-beast, Shikanoko wanders the Darkwood with a few loyal followers. Each day the beast side claims a little more of him. If he does not find a way to remove the mask soon, there will be no hope left for the true Emperor or the Eight Islands.
Lord of the Darkwood is the second book in the Tales of Shikanoko series. Technically there are meant to be four books but Emperor of the Eight Islands comprises the first two while Lord of the Darkwood combine books three and four. If you haven’t read the first volume yet, definitely pick it up. Lord of the Darkwood isn’t set up to be read alone. It barely offers sufficient memory joggers for people who’ve read the first volume more than a year ago. There were times when I had to flip back through Emperor of the Eight Islands because there wasn’t enough in Lord of the Darkwood to anchor me back in the story and I’m usually good with that sort of thing.
If you enjoyed Emperor of the Eight Islands, you’ll love Lord of the Darkwood. It has a similar feel. Like Emperor, Darkwood is heavily influenced by Japan’s historical warrior tales. Set in feudal Japan, the tale is epic in scale and detail. A great many characters from the first volume return, grow old enough to take up the Emperor’s cause and choose sides.
If you weren’t a fan of Emperor, you’ll likely not enjoy Darkwood either. It has the same strengths as its predecessor; fantastical, atmospheric – a tale of epic proportions and intricately woven politics. But it also shares the weaknesses of the previous volume. Women have a little more page time and agency in Darkwood, but the brutal rape that occurs in Emperor taints the second volume. It’s made worse by the fact that the victim of the rape accepts half of the responsibility for it and seemingly thinks that she deserved to die for it.
The writing is again lovely. Atmospheric and descriptive, but also restrained. Like mythological tales, the interest lies in the fantastical elements more than in individual characters or emotions.
For a refreshingly different type of fantasy Lian Hearn is an author to look for. She weaves a complex tale with skill; pulling all of the elements together and tying off loose ends to everyone’s satisfaction.
Lord of the Darkwood – Lian Hearn
Hachette (August 2016)