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Review of Lord of the Darkwood by Lian Hearn

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

Alternate cover for Lord of the Darkwood.

Alternate cover for Lord of the Darkwood.

The effects of Shikanoko’s confrontation with the Abbot Prince ripple out through the eight islands and down the years. Now cursed as much as he is empowered by the stag mask, Shikanoko mourns Aki and withdraws from the world, retreating deeper into the Darkwood, perhaps to die. He even states, “No one is to blame for [Aki’s] death but myself . . . It is on myself that I am taking revenge” (42). Aside from his guilt and sense of failure, he is accompanied by the Burned Twins and Bara, who desires his help in her quest for vengeance against Masachika. Lady Tora’s supernatural children—The Spider Tribe—come into their own, testing their varied talents and using them for different ends. Notably, Kiku begins constructing a mercantile and criminal empire using a magical skull mask, and Mu, longing to be a man of knowledge and magic, eventually comes under the tutelage of an enigmatic Tengu who claims to be attempting to restore the will of Heaven.

Hina, now without family or support, passes from uncertainty and homelessness to a monastery to forced prostitution as others decide her fate all while she longs to see Shikanoko again. When fate reunites her with Yoshimori and Takeyoshi, she follows them toward the Darkwood where she may be the only one who can help Shikanoko and restore a land plagued by natural catastrophe.

Mono No Aware, 物の哀れ, a Japanese concept that colors almost everything in the Tale of Shikanoko.

Mono No Aware, 物の哀れ, a Japanese concept that colors almost everything in the Tale of Shikanoko.

Mono no Aware

Sadness, regret, and longing dominate the novel, setting the mood early and maintaining it across the years of the story. For instance, even though Mu is young, he feels regret over not having anyone to guide him or his brothers (48). Kiku agrees, saying, “Why do I have no one to teach me? Don’t you ever feel it? That there is a huge part of our lives missing? Why is there no one like us? Where did they all go?” (51). This melancholy at the inevitable changing of the world is in part what prompts them to behave as they do. No character, save perhaps Masachika, is spared from this attitude, and he isn’t present in the novel. Even Shikanoko’s mother, who hasn’t been seen or heard from since the first few chapters of Emperor of the Eight Islands, finds a way to enter the story and underline this theme (212-4).

There’s a lot less to do with plot in this novel than there is mood. This book acts as both denouement to the previous novel and a clear setting-up for what is to come in Tengu’s Game of Go. Mu engages in meditation and has a vision of the lands, and Tadashii, a Tengu, tells him, “You have seen the state of the board” (140-3). The implication is that all the characters are being set up for a particular conflict in order to set the land right. Readers looking for strong plotting won’t find it, but the overall series makes progress in that nearly every character is developed and set toward goals. The audience sees that Hina “had to find Shikanoko, take Yoshimori to him, so that the true heir of the previous emperor could be restored to the throne. And she had to give Shikanoko his son, Take” (191). As with previous novels in the series, the scope of the action seems greater than what the characters can accomplish, and they know it. Nevertheless, they push toward these ends, usually of their own desire.

Some of the characters lack agency as a function of their gender in a patriarchal society. As one woman laments early on, “what trouble these old men cause with their attempts to control everything! If only they could foresee the ripples that go on through generations” (20). Also, the attitude pervasive in the setting is that fate intends particular outcomes. It is interesting to note, though, that the Tengu suggest fate doesn’t occur on its own but requires the actions of people to achieve any end (157).

Though this is the shortest novel in the series so far, it covers the greatest amount of time. This may be a bit jarring for some readers. As with the first novel, the ending point of this one seems to happen in a strange place. This lack of conclusion is suggestive that all the Shikanoko novels tell one complete story and should be read as a single work rather than a series of standalone stories.

Crow-Tengu (Karasu-Tengu), late Edo period (28x25x58cm, private collection).

Crow-Tengu (Karasu-Tengu), late Edo period (28x25x58cm, private collection).

Time to Pay the Price

The style remains clear, straightforward, and readable. Hearn's concise writing along with its themes maintain an air of ancient writings and folklore. Reading these novels continues to be like reading Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Laxdaela Saga, Arthurian legends, stories of Taoist immortals, and the early Earthsea novels of Ursula K. LeGuin. Even when the plot isn’t propulsive, the style makes the audience believe it's reading an ancient and powerful tale. Lord of the Darkwood is a good entry in the Tale of Shikanoko, though the series should be read and considered as a complete whole rather than distinct, separate pieces.


Hearn, Lian. Lord of the Darkwood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.

© 2017 Seth Tomko