Reviewed in Australia on 23 June 2019
Review: the Tale of Shikanoko
By Joel Hopkinson
Book 2: Lord of the Dark Wood
First, let me say that I enjoyed this story. Hearn writes a good tale and this prequel to ‘Tales of the Otori’ does not disappoint, adding to the richness of Hearn’s imaginary world. Although, my enjoyment of this book was not without a few reservations and I had to overcome some issues that I had with a couple of the events in the story.
Hearn conjures up an fantastic and mythical world obviously based on Japanese folklore and some say that this smacks of cultural appropriation. When a Western writer uses the stories of other cultures for their own fiction, this can cause some problems but Hearn does not directly mention Japan anywhere (although with everything from warrior nobility to sesame seeds, it does not take much detective work to figure it out for yourself, and the character names are mostly Japanese). Others may argue that authors should have the freedom to write about anything, otherwise their creative spirit is restricted, and certainly Hearn has a close relationship with Japan, doing a great job in many areas. There are places though, where the cracks appear and I wonder whether a different writer might have treated these areas more delicately if not entirely differently.
The main character, Shikanoko has a shamanic mask, and other encounters involve wizards, demons, ghosts, and tengu. I found this part to be very interesting with Shikanoko’s shamanic abilities something very fresh to a genre where whizz-bang magic is common. Unfortunately there is no mention of Japan’s Indigenous Ainu population, which seems a grievous oversight, especially since the ‘ancient-humans-with-magical-abilities’ mentioned in the story seemed to have colonised the islands a long time ago.
Dramatically, the fate of the Empire hangs in the balance as two warring clans drag the rest of the nation into conflict, resulting in the assassination of the emperor’s family and the last true heir going missing. Shikanoko is caught by forces he does not understand and seems to blunder from one mistake to the next, only to then sulk in the forest for longer than was truly necessary. Shikanoko brooded for too long in my opinion, which took away from some of the tension in the story.
There was a dragon too, rarely seen except for puffs of water vapour. There were so many songs and expectations about the dragon that I thought the payoff was a little disappointing.
Despite the archaic, primal feeling of the story, Hearn’s version of Christianity (the Hidden Ones) as an already well-established but secretive religion with many followers amongst the lower classes creates some continuity problems. Hearn also mentions followers of the ‘Enlightened One’, which are clearly Buddhists, and then appropriates many of the core practices of Buddhism (non-violence, vegetarianism etc.) for her Japanese Christians. Later the new Emperor struggles with his own pseudo-Christian beliefs, not wishing to take leadership of the country or follow its ancient traditions. I found this very difficult to digest and somewhat uncomfortable. Japan has a long tradition of Shintoism, Buddhism, and other folk beliefs, which have been abandoned too easily, whereas an author more grounded in these traditions might not have done this. Hearn even has ‘Enlightened One’ nuns being used to groom young women for a future life in prostitution, which was distasteful.
The role of women in this story should also be mentioned. There does not seem to be much for them to do except for within the confines of the men in the story. I realise that the gender roles portrayed in the book might closely resemble some sort of historical context but this is a fantasy series so stronger female roles would have been welcome. I also found the sexual violence between Shikanoko and one of the female characters to be very difficult to read and even harder to ignore for the rest of the story. It was totally unnecessary and jarred against the senses forever tarnishing the main character despite any plotline justifications.
Another female character, a young girl, is kept by a lord and educated with the goal of this child becoming the man’s future wife. Is anyone else troubled by this? I found it somewhat creepy. In time the young girl even seems to accept her fate, trying to please her husband-to-be with poetry. More should have been done in the story to condemn the man involved but instead he is given an important role in the story and in a certain light, some sympathy.
Perhaps, I am being too squeamish. These days, all subject matter has been placed on the table and Post-HBO’s Game of Thrones, which added a lot of graphic sex scenes to Martin’s books, more and more of this sort of thing seems likely. If the rumours are true about ‘Tales of the Otori’ being made into a movie, one wonders what would happen if ‘The Tale of Shikanoko’ might also and if so, whether these elements could alienate the audience.
On a different note, thankfully, this story comes with a list of characters as there are many of them. Unfortunately it is not in alphabetical order and many of the characters change their names as he story unfolds. This can be confusing at times.
As I mentioned first, I did enjoy the book despite my concerns. Hearn writes well, even if miraculous events are sometimes glossed over and the whole story starts off a bit jarringly. The imagery and feeling of the books inspired me to research other Japanese literature. Hearn’s previous series, ‘the Tales of the Otori’ has been very successful and this series gives us some backstory of the Otori clan being set 300 years in the past.
Recommended reading if you are getting sick of reading about elves and orcs, as long as you can overcome the issues mentioned above.