Although I have heard the phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ many times, I find that the cover is one of my favourite aspects of the book. It’s why I was drawn to Lian Hearn’s Emperor of the Eight Islands. I had picked this book up many times in various different bookshops around the country, it kept catching my eye as the cover literally sparkles with gold paper embedded in its cover, how could I say no?
Lian Hearn is a name I’ve come across a couple of times when talking to other fantasy readers about non-traditional fantasy books. The setting itself is novel to us, it is home to the unexpected, and nothing in this story is predictable. It doesn’t follow Western storytelling sensibilities, certainly not literacy ones anyway. But Hearn creates a magical medieval Japan where each character’s story is a thread that weaves into the bigger tapestry of the tale where deadly consequences match each action. The lives of the people in this novel are more closely entwined with the spiritual and animalistic where the supernatural is an aspect of daily life. The setting of Emperor of the Eight Islands had me enthralled from the first page and gave the book a feeling of enchantment and beauty. Somehow, the way it is written, with the magic so quick and sudden, the narrative canters along and makes the read feel easy and fast to follow.
Yet in some ways, Shikanoko is an archetypal hero: after an attempt is made on his life by those wishing to deprive him of his inheritance, he retreats to the forest, where he learns to manipulate the supernatural world around him from the sorcerer who lives in the Darkling Woods. Eventually, he becomes part of a wider conflict involving lines of succession, mystical creatures, and betrayals. But Shikanoko is a more ambiguous character as well, moving out of a morally gray role over the course of Emperor of the Eight Islands, the first of two books in the series, and discovers that the supernatural can be used for not only good but terrible acts as well.
The second and final book in this series Lord of The Dark Wood comes out January 26th 2017, and I will be eagerly awaiting its arrival. I guess it shows that sometimes a book does need to be judged by its cover.