I picked up Lian Hearn's latest two books, Emperor of the Eight Islands and Autumn Princess, Dragon Child, with some trepidation. Hearn published a run of well-regarded books set in an alternate fantasy version of Japan some fifteen years ago, under the series title Tales of the Otori, and now is back with the Tale of Shikanoko, four more books that are all being published this year in what is apparently becoming Farrar, Strauss & Giroux's signature move with books falling under the "speculative fiction" umbrella. Hold that thought about FSG for a few paragraphs.
I read the first Otori book, Across the Nightingale Floor (2002), and my memories are that I thought it was fine, but that I wasn't particularly inspired to read its successors. I've since earned multiple degrees related to the study of history and of Japan, and my leeriness about what Hearn's choice of pseudonym says about her choice of subject-position with respect to Japan has only increased. The writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was one of many Euro-American "Gilded Age misfits" who washed up in Japan in the decades immediately following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, fleeing personal and professional failure, as were many of the white people who went out from the metropole to the colonies in the era of the "new imperialism" that began in the 1870s. (Yes, Japan was never colonized. But it was certainly in a subordinate position to the Western powers at the time.) He married a Japanese woman, took a Japanese name, and wrote several volumes of ghost stories collected from the people he met around him. His books introduced "exotic Japan" to many English-language readers for the first time, but his privileged position in Japanese society as a white European man, and the colonialism inherent in it and his writings, continues to give people who study Japanese literature and history pause.
Now that Wikipedia is a thing, one quick Google will tell you that Lian Hearn is in fact the British-Australian author Gillian Rubinstein, who, as the Lian Hearn biography says, "was educated at Oxford and [ . . . ] has a lifelong interest in Japan, has lived there, and studies Japanese." This sounds a bit defensive, and well it should; in the year 2K16, in the wake of the #ownvoices Twitter hashtag—and countless conversations about writing the Other and when or if it's appropriate for white writers to write non-white cultures—it's understood that the bar is high for white writers who choose to tell these stories. I was expecting to write a review covering multiple points that are generally made in these conversations, perhaps exhaustively, but in the event these books didn't leave me conflicted, which is how I felt about them before I began reading; by the end, I was just angry.
There's an extent to which I am simply not the target audience for these books; I know too much about Japan and about Japanese history to not obsessively note down the slip-ups in the details, regardless of the fact that Hearn gets most of them right (here are some, for example, that stood out to me: Inari is not a fox god, Inari is a deity whose messenger is a fox; the fact that there are four books sits oddly with the Japanese superstition against sets of four things). Hearn having attended Oxford doesn't intimidate me, and thanks to my own education I can track where Hearn is slightly twisting the medieval warrior epics, history, and geography in order to create her not-very-alternate fantasy Japan. (Again, there are questions. Is "snow country" being written as "yukikuni" instead of the actual "yukiguni" an attempt at historical linguistics? Why does Hearn imply that settlers in the islands from Silla and the other kingdoms on the Korean peninsula brought patriarchy and the concept of an emperor with them, when in fact both were adopted from China much later? Assuredly these questions are nitpicking, but in books that stick so closely to their inspiration, these changes stand out.) So when I say that the plot—which concerns the disinherited teenager Kazumaru, and his transformation into the sorcerous warrior Shikanoko against the backdrop of political battles for the imperial throne—is basically the thirteenth-century epic Heike monogatari, along with elements of other warrior epics from the period, rewritten and salted with magic, I'm really not exaggerating.
In fact, as far as I can tell, the only appreciable difference thus far between the historical epics—which are not actually history; hold that thought—and Hearn's books is the magic, and I assume that magic is the answer to the question of why Hearn didn't just write historical novels set in actual Japan. The success of Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings (2015) has certainly proven (again) that there's a market among fantasy fans for rewriting Asian historical epics with speculative fiction elements. And hey, I like fantasy too; magic is cool, and I'm prepared to accept the fact that magic is cool as the answer to why Hearn didn't just write about actual Japan, or to be more accurate, about Japan as it is mythologized in samurai legends.
Given that it does have magic, Hearn's fantasy Japan is doubly removed from actual Japan, which on one level is fine, but on another level is doubly annoying. It's texts like this, which take the engaging but ultimately highly misleading Heike monogatari and other epics at face value, which perpetuate so many of the myths about Japan and Japanese history—beautiful geisha, fierce samurai, stealthy ninja, you get the idea—that are so tenacious and pernicious. The problem with mythology, in other words, is that it works. I love the Heike; it's Japan's answer to the Iliad, and it's amazing, but it's not history. Believe me when I say that the most historically accurate part of these novels involves Lady Tama's taking her ex-husband to court over the ownership of a certain country estate, and her recognition of the importance of possessing the legal documents concerning the estate if her suit is to have any chance of success in the shogunate's legal system.
Hearn's fantasy Japan is also doubly annoying because of what she does and doesn't do with it. This is fantasy Japan; she could literally make any changes she wants, and instead she falls back on some particularly pernicious stereotypes and tropes. One of the most egregious examples of this tendency is Hearn's depiction of same-sex sexuality; the only time it features in these novels is when bad men are threatening to rape good boys, which is not only historically inaccurate but also erases the male-male sexuality portrayed positively in the Heike and the other warrior tales: sexual relationships between a senior adult man and a junior adolescent male were common from the medieval era until the end of the early modern Tokugawa period, especially among warriors and monks. In fact, one of the most famous episodes of the entire Heike—constantly depicted in art and drama for centuries—turns on male-male sexuality; the older man who goes to kill the youth Atsumori wants to spare his life when he sees that Atstumori is beautiful. For maximum tedious offense, there's also at least a whiff of the old "queer villain" trope around the evil Prince Abbot, whose preference for beautiful male acolytes amidst endless talk of secret rituals is highly suggestive.
So the homophobia is one thing; the other is sexism. I've seen people praise Hearn for her complex female characters, which I suppose is true as long as you don't think that "complex" necessarily means "having agency." There are four major female characters in Emperor of the Eight Islands; one is an evil sorceress who, succubus-like, seduces men in order to breed a race of half-human enchanters, and she entices one of the book's central male characters, Lord Kiyoyori, off the path of virtue with her sexual prowess. For the record, this view of women as evil succubi endangering men is straight out of medieval Japanese popular tales such as those collected in the Konjaku monogatari, which as society became increasingly patriarchal increasingly portrayed women as a threat to men's spiritual and moral virtue. Women, amirite?
Another female character, Hina, is found as an orphan girl about to starve to death in a mansion in the capital by the young lord Takaakira, when he's out house-hunting; Takaakira explicitly decides on the spot that he is going to groom her to be his ideal woman and then have sex with her as soon as she reaches maturity. It's worth quoting the passage in question to get the full effect:
She would be Murasaki to his Genji. He had always dreamed of having a child he would bring up, like a daughter, to become a wife, a companion who shared his interests, who would be his equal in intellect and learning, who would love him. He imagined the clothes he would dress her in, the books he would give her, games of incense matching and poetry that he would teach her. (p. 207)
The line about Genji and Murasaki collapses any distance between actual Japan and Hearn's fantasy Japan via the Tale of Genji, the world's first novel, which was written by the court lady Murasaki Shikibu around the year 1000 and which by the time of the Heike was already well known among the educated in the Japanese archipelago. That line was also the point where I scribbled "OH GOD NO" in my notes, because as anyone who has read Genji can tell you, the backstory between Genji and Murasaki is extremely creepy; he takes her into his household when she's an orphan of about seven, grooms her, and then rapes her when he decides that she's old enough. The trick with Genji is that despite the name it's actually about the women who structure Genji's life, whose feelings and thoughts and inner lives are the real meat of the novel, and who—crucially—provide the economic stability that allows him to achieve his glittering career. The text of Genji also makes it quite clear that Murasaki herself is not initially willing to convert their relationship into a sexual one, but as she has no family to provide her economic security or a house of her own, she ultimately has little choice, and Genji continues to deny her agency throughout their lives together, refusing to let her follow her own inclination to become a nun multiple times. Emperor of the Eight Islands, by contrast, gives us no idea what Hina thinks about Takaakira's decision—or even if, unlike Murasaki, she understands the fate he envisions for her. Nor is there any acknowledgment in the text that Takaakira's decision is at all questionable.
But there's worse to come. The plot of the first book turns on the campaign of the Minamoto—excuse me, Miboshi—family to overthrow the powerful Taira clan—sorry, Kakizuki—whose members have married into the imperial family and hold rich court offices. Their ally at court in this aim is the evil Prince Abbot, who wishes to destroy the current Crown Prince and place an imperial son of his choice on the throne. When these schemes bear fruit, a young scion of the Kakizuki, Akihime, is dispatched by her parents with the Crown Prince's young son Yoshiyori to flee the capital ahead of the Miboshi army and take the prince into hiding. For anyone familiar with Japanese literature, Akihime's name, "Autumn Princess," recalls the famously opinionated and skilled poet Princess Nukata (630-90), one of whose poems in the anthology Man'yôshû contains the immortal line, "As for me, I am for autumn," throwing down a gauntlet for the ages in the eternal battle of poetry and taste between spring and autumn. The resemblance between Aki and Nukata is deceptive, however. Aki is a sworn shrine maiden with combat training, and she is certainly strong-willed, but when she and Yoshi encounter Shikanoko, she is immediately subordinated as a character to him and his story. Specifically, despite her informing him that she is a sworn virgin after he decides to help her, he is overcome by her beauty and rapes her, as her combat training is of no avail. What's that you say? I'm leaving out important exonerating details? You're right! To be more specific, the Prince Abbot, whom Shikanoko is defying with his decision to help rather than kill Aki and Yoshi, magically compels Shikanoko to rape Aki in order to give Shikanoko angst. This entire episode is depicted from Shikanoko's perspective; Aki flees immediately and the novel ends a page later, while the second book, Autumn Princess, Dragon Child, opens with Shikanoko again, which is a definitive statement of whose perspective and narrative is important here.
There are no words to express how tired and stereotypical these tropes are, and given that the Heike famously contains warrior women who don't get raped—and that it ends with a famously moving chapter centered on the experience of the widowed Taira empress whose young son was killed in the conflict—Hearn's decision to fall back on these gross and lazy clichés is doubly insulting. None of the sexism improves in the second book, which sees the aforementioned evil sorceress, Lady Tora, die after fulfilling her self-avowed purpose in life of bringing sons into the world, just as Aki dies after bearing Shikanoko's child—a boy, of course—and then being tortured by the evil Prince Abbot to smoke out Shikanoko. Adding insult to injury, Aki blames herself for her rape, in a classic feature of rape culture, because she thought Shikanoko was attractive prior to his assaulting her. Meanwhile, Hina is a willing participant in her own grooming by the predatory Takaakira, and the formerly strong-willed Lady Tama reunites with her estranged husband and happily surrenders to him the estate she'd won back in court.
By the end it appears that Shikanoko is now set on overthrowing the Miboshi and restoring the "rightful" child emperor to the throne for whatever reason, raising the possibility that the books will in the end reverse the overarching narrative of the Heike. That would immediately be a departure from the historical epics, but Lian Hearn is also thus merely the latest in a long line of scholars and writers to have fallen under the romantic spell of the Taira clan, stylish and arrogant in their heyday, full of pitiful nobility in their utter overthrow. The difference is that Hearn is writing a fantasy novel, in which concepts such as male primogeniture (in reality, a weak principle for the inheritance of the imperial throne prevailed until the modern period) can be imbued with otherworldly significance and the administratively-minded country bumpkins, the Minamoto, can be put back in their imagined provincial place for having dared usurp their aristocratic Taira betters. In this case, fantasy seems to provide the space for wish fulfilment that the historical record and the historical epics cannot.
On a purely technical level, the books are a cromulent set of novels thus far: the writing moves along at a decent clip and the plot is unobjectionable, but I must admit that whenever any of the characters mention finding Shikanoko attractive I boggled, not only because he's a rapist but also because, like most of the characters, it's difficult to get a sense of him as a person, in terms of either appearance or personality. Few if any of the characters have that elusive quality sometimes called three-dimensionality; instead, by and large they do what they do as the plot requires but are mostly unengaging. Partly this may be attributable to Hearn's faux-epic style of narration, which features a lot of telling rather than showing, but the effect of making the books flat and uninteresting is undeniable.
All of which leads me to seriously question FSG's decision to publish these books under the "FSG Originals" imprint. Books in this imprint, the cover copy breathlessly insists, are "driven by voices that insist on being heard, stories that demand to be told, writers who are compelled to show us something new. They defy categorization and expectation. They are, in a word, original." To quote a very angry man in a very good movie, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." The Tale of Shikanoko is anything but original, and I heartily recommend the Tale of the Heike instead: there are three translations in English now, and at least two of them are very good.
So we've returned to the question at the start of this review about writing the Other and whether or when it's appropriate. It would be rank hypocrisy for me, a white woman whose professional training is in Japanese history, to categorically state that white writers can't or shouldn't write about the Other—and indeed, I don't think that's the case. But it is undeniable that, even if publishing isn't a zero-sum game, it's still an overwhelmingly white industry in which white authors who write a given setting or culture get more attention than non-white authors writing the same things. I'd certainly rather have more official English translations of the Moribito novels by Nahoko Uehashi, also set in a fantasy Japan and concerning peril to a young emperor—but featuring a female protagonist with actual agency whose combat training doesn't fail her in order to give the male protagonist manpain—than more of Hearn's books, but the Moribito series wasn't continued in translation due to weak sales. (You can still track down the Moribito anime and used copies of the books in North America, and you totally should.) At the very least, if a white writer is going to write a novel depicting a culture not their own, they should use their different vantage point on that culture to tell stories that people in that culture wouldn't or can't, and to do it well, rather than succumb to tired and offensive sexist and homophobic clichés and stereotypes. Given her failings on these counts, Hearn's novels fail to justify her having written them, let alone me or anyone else reading them.
Electra Pritchett lives in Tokyo, where she splits her time between reading, research, and her obsession with birds and parfait. She blogs at electra.dreamwidth.org.