The first of a quartet of novels collectively titled “The Tale of Shikanoko,” this book tells the origin story of that character and establishes the nature of his relationships with a diverse array of beings, both mortal and magical – and all apparently at war with one another. Bloodthirsty warlords, ruthless bandit chieftains, crafty sorcerers, warlike monks, a powerful temptress, children who survive in the face of incredible odds – it’s all here in this sprawling tale of Shikanoko’s role in the rise of a dynasty and the destiny of a nation.
Shikanoko begins life as Kazumaru, orphaned at the tender age of seven while out hunting with his father. Taken in by his uncle, the boy suffers through some unhappy years until one day, on the brink of manhood and out on another hunting expedition, Kazumaru survives an attempt on his life and finds himself in the den of the forest sorcerer. The enchanter calls him “The Deer’s Child” because the young man’s life was saved by a stag who dies in the process. As a result, it is destined that Kazumaru should undergo a magical rite of passage involving a custom-fitted stag mask, at the end of which he takes on the name “Shikanoko,” which means “the Deer’s Child.” From here he sets out to meet his destiny.
Among the principal characters Shikanoko encounters are Kiyoyori, estranged from his younger brother since their father decreed the latter must give his wife to the former and move away; Sesshin, an ancient scholar whose hidden depths and abilities become apparent after Shikanoko arrives; and Aki, an adolescent girl whose father has taught her survival skills not traditionally passed on to daughters, and who ends up being entrusted with smuggling the young heir to the throne out of the battle-rocked capital city and toward hoped-for safety.
Neil Shah’s light tenor is versatile enough to convincingly voice both male and female characters, and young children as well as adults. It is not always easy to be certain who is speaking, but that is just part of the larger difficulty of keeping track of a large, somewhat disconnected cast of characters with Japanese names (and variations on those names) that may sound quite similar to any ear untrained in the sounds and rules of Japanese language.
Listeners who love all things Japanese – the culture, the history, the mysticism – will no doubt enjoy this historical fantasy that takes a medieval Japanese setting and turns up the volume on the magical elements inherent in that folkloric tradition. Good news for everyone who reaches the end of Emperor of the Eight Islands ready for more: the remaining three titles in “The Tale of Shikanoko” are already out and available from Highbridge Audio.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program administered by Audiobook Jukebox. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.