Emperor of the Eight Islands, a review
Lian Hern writes a good tale here, but not a great one. She sets it in a fictional medieval Japan, sort of. We’ll come back to that. In spite of the long names, and similarities among the names, the characters are distinct and sometimes compelling. But everything I’m saying has qualifiers on it, because something was just not … right, and I’m not sure what.
There are good things here - characters to care about, solid descriptions of esoteric rituals, high stakes. Some characters’ names change as the story progresses. I was alright with this and thought it was handled well.
Some of the geography was vividly described, but some of it was not. Characters could see events occurring in other places and this wasn’t clear on if it was because geography allowing them or if this was magic.
To give you an idea of how this book misses its target, I got to the end of it but have no idea what the eight islands of the title are. For a story set in Japan, it was too generic, not grounded in the geography and history enough for me as a reader. I kept comparing this book to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a Chinese story, which showed, I think, one of the story’s flaws: It wasn’t Japanese enough.
It was clearly set in the orient, but there was nothing in the story that couldn’t have been just as easily told as Chinese or Korean. I think some of the best parts of this story, like the magical elements, were the ones that seemed the most Chinese to me.
In the end, I think this was a book that needed more time to percolate, formulate, and evolve.
There are three more books in this series. Would I read them? Sure, if I find them on sale and have nothing more pressing to read. Will I remember the story five years from now? I doubt it.