In tetralogies, the third book is perhaps the most difficult. A master storyteller, like a chess player, must move their ensemble cast toward an endgame, but the strategy for getting them there should remain obscure to the reader.

Lord of the Darkwood: The Tale of Shikanoko — Book 3, by Lian Hearn
240 pages
FSG Originals, Fiction.

The third book in Lian Hearn’s “The Tale of Shikanoko” fantasy series, set in a parallel version of feudal Japan, fits this archetype. It opens where “Autumn Princess, Dragon Child” left off, with the Prince Abbot defeated and Shikanoko on the brink of losing his humanity. In book three, the focus shifts to Hina — now known as Yayoi — and the five monstrous sons of Lady Tora.

In book 2, Tora’s sons were amusing, if psychotic, tykes. As they mature in this novel, the possibility of a Frankenstein-esque exploration of manufactured consciousness emerges, but this thread is left frustratingly incomplete. The sons, perhaps owing to their origins, lack the depth of Hearn’s “human” characters.

Yayoi’s story offers much more for the reader. Her journey from noble girl to prostitute is movingly told with sympathy and an understanding of the realities of female life in a feudal patriarchy. As intrigue and secrets pile on each other, her knowledge and power build slowly and, as the novel ends, she is once more on the road to confront her destiny.

The board is set for the final book in the series, “The Tengu’s Game of Go.” It only remains to be seen whether the rightful emperor can mount his throne and bring peace to the realm.

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