The second installment in Hearn’s The Tale of Shikanoko series about a mythical version of feudal Japan.
Newcomers to the series may initially find it difficult to follow the storyline, which picks up without preamble or recap where Emperor of the Eight Islands (2016) left off. The young warrior sorcerer Shika awakens in the Darkwood and returns to the hut of the sorcerer Shisoku, whom he hasn’t seen for more than a year, with the magic mask Shisoku made for him and that he has broken. The sorceress Lady Tora shows up at the hut, too, and soon gives birth to five demon male children. Before the flames of death engulf her, she charges Shika to raise the boys, who grow with unnatural speed. Shika yearns to find Aki, the princess he loves but betrayed, and Yoshimori, the Hidden Emperor whom he wants to restore to the throne, but first he sets out to regain the estate his uncle has stolen from him. Meanwhile, Aki and Yoshimori find protection among a family of monkeys. Lord Aritomo of the Miboshi has taken political control as the new emperor and sends off his close ally Takaakira to find Aki at her father’s old estate, unaware that Takaakira is harboring Hina, daughter of Aritomo’s slain enemy Lord Kiyoyori. Hina’s self-serving but charismatic uncle Masachika keeps switching allegiances between the warring factions of Miboshi and Kuromori but still loves his estranged wife, Tama, who has won a legal battle against him over her father’s land. Gradually these major characters begin to have fateful interactions with each other, fueled by human love, greed, ambition, and vengeance, while aided or hindered by supernatural forces often hidden within animals or objects. At the center is Shika, whose frequent escapes from death promise a special destiny.
Even those immune to the charms of fantasy and operatic tribal warfare can admire Hearn’s skill at juggling so many characters who defy fairy-tale simplicity.