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Review of The Tengu’s Game of Go

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

Cover art of The Tengu's Game of Go, owned by the artist and/or the book publisher.

Cover art of The Tengu's Game of Go, owned by the artist and/or the book publisher.

Aritomo Miboshi believes he can attain dominion over the Eight Islands and even death. His worldly power rests on eliminating Shikanoko, who haunts the fringes of the empire with his arcane Stag Mask. He also needs to locate and execute Yoshimori, the rightful heir to the throne. To see these ends achieved, he sets Masachika to the task while continuing to drink an elixir he believes will make him immortal. Masachika accepts the command while also plotting to overthrow Aritomo, whose physical and mental state is increasingly disconcerting among the Miboshi followers.

Hina, in the company of Yoshimori and Takeyoshi, continues trying to track Shikanoko, believing she is the only one who can remove the curse of his mask. Kiku, who has built a thriving underworld of smuggling, extortion, and assassination, also searches for Shikanoko in order to possess the Stag Mask for himself and use its powers for his own ends.

Tadashii, the Tengu, weaves in and out of the lives of all of these characters, setting them on entwining paths all in an attempt to set right a catastrophic series of events he witnessed long ago when Shikanoko’s father made a fatal miscalculation. His actions, both overt and covert, are meant to lead the characters into a crisis where the truth will be revealed and the will of Heaven restored.

A game of Go in progress.

A game of Go in progress.

Ripeness Is All

While many of the themes from the whole Tale of Shikanoko remain in play, the final novel also fittingly explores timeliness as a part of doing the right thing. Tadashii’s plan has been not to simply try to change things by force but also to ensure the right people are in the right place at the right time to take the right actions. Getting to such a point, though, has meant characters need to learn what those right sorts of actions are, and that learning process tends to involve suffering.

Shikanoko, Hina, Yoshimori, Bara, and Mu learn these lessons, sometimes directly from Tadashii but more often through their own failures or being victims of their surroundings. Characters such as Aritomo, Masachika, and Tama learn these lessons too late, if at all. There is a sense of sadness that Yoshimori, who wants nothing but a simple life as a traveling entertainer, is the best suited to be emperor because he understands hardship and does not desire the power of his imperial birthright (119).

For the land to be made whole, however, he must relinquish his dreams because he knows how much suffering will befall people who do not deserve it if he puts his own needs before theirs. His compassion makes him better suited to the position than Aritomo, who considers himself superior and the lordship his right (176). This is the same lesson Shikanoko has learned, and in his humility, he’s willing to personally suffer to see that the empire is put right (203).

Working in tandem with this theme is the theme of the destructiveness of prideful actions. At this late point, readers learn that Shikanoko’s father, in his arrogance, set some of the events of the whole series in motion through his gambling with a Tengu (70, 74). Tadashii has worked all these years to undo those consequences and ultimately restore Yoshimori as emperor. Prideful men cause damage that reaches far beyond immediate circumstances with their vanity and disregard.

This theme is seen over and over again as Aritomo Miboshi alienates everyone with his paranoia and unquenchable lust to control the lives of his subjects and in Masachika’s constant scheming to rise to higher station, even if it means betraying his wife and risking his already considerable wealth and standing. Kiku lusts for power, too, disguising his grabs for money and authority as service when he only serves his own desires (99).

To a lesser extent, the novel also questions the nature of freedom. Hina, like many of the female characters, understands the difficulty of being a woman in a society that largely devalues her. When free, though, she still feels hobbled by those restraints because she doesn’t always understand how to exercise her new freedom (122). Without much guidance, all she can do is set her mind to a goal and work toward it, which is more or less what Bara does, too.

Shikanoko also reflects on the extent of personal independence when he thinks, “Have we all imprisoned ourselves, become captive of the roles we have to assume?” (214). This question has been an undercurrent of the entire Tale of Shikanoko, as characters end up with lives they would have never imagined at the outset.

The whole collection of "The Tale of Shikanoko"

The whole collection of "The Tale of Shikanoko"

Mandate of Heaven

All four books in the Tale of Shikanoko are worth reading. They move fast, in no small part because Hearn keeps both the story and her prose focused. All four books should be read together, essentially as one story, since they all revolve around the same set of characters engaged in one prolonged conflict—namely restoring the true Emperor of the Eight Islands to reestablish political and spiritual stability to the land.


Hearn, Lian. The Tengu’s Game of Go. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.

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© 2017 Seth Tomko