Hearn’s brand of Asian fantasy fiction is a genre unto itself; having completed her Tales of the Otori (Heaven’s Net Is Wide, 2007, etc.), the pseudonymous Hearn begins her new series, The Tale of Shikanoko, by introducing the primary characters while setting up conflicts and relationships that will evolve in the three volumes to follow, all to be published this year.
It is “a time of troubles and opportunities.” As the weak emperor nears death, his two sons jockey for power, each with his own followers. The title character, who threads through the book connecting disparate stories and dynasties, begins life as Kazumaru, son of a vassal to Lord Kiyoyori, whose allegiance lies with the emperor’s older son, the crown prince. Fatherless at 7, Kazumaru escapes a murderous uncle/guardian at 16 to land in a sorcerer’s lair, where he receives a magical mask and is renamed Shikanoko, “the deer’s child.” He finds work with a mountain bandit whose companion is beautiful Lady Tora, with whom Shikanoko believes he had carnal relations under the sorcerer’s spell. Meanwhile Lord Kiyoyori, a widower with one daughter, Hina, follows his father’s command to unite the Kuromori and Matsutani dynasties by taking his younger brother’s wife, Lady Tama, as his own, though neither he nor his brother desire the change. Although Tama bears Kiyoyori a son, he distrusts her loyalty, especially after foiling an assassination attempt by the mountain bandits thanks to his “wise man” Sesshin. Kiyoyori, who has fallen madly in love with Lady Tora, allows Shikanoko to study with Sesshin, but Tama banishes them in a fit of panicky anger when her son disappears. Shikanoko ends up under the control of the Prince-Abbot, the emperor’s brother-in-law. When war breaks out after the emperor’s death, the crown prince’s young son, Yoshi, goes into hiding with Aki, his foster father's daughter. As Kiyoyori sadly recognizes in his world, children are pawns in the quest for power.
The barrage of names and places can be hard to follow, but the fluid prose and morally ambiguous characters are magically seductive.