Imperial Japan in the twelfth century is the setting for the newest historical fantasy by the author of the Blood of the Goddess trilogy and The Nightingale. The end of the Heian era is a time of tremendous upheaval — nine emperors ruled between 1123 and 1184 — with two rival clans, the Minomoto and the Taira, struggling for ascendancy. This is the story of their rise and fall, ending in the beginning of the Japanese Shogunate.
What Dalkey does with this outline (for the historical sources are sketchy and sometimes contradictory as to the details) is to bring it alive, populating it with a host of sympathetic (if not always likable) characters and fleshing it out with lore and legend. We follow the fortunes of the Taira as young Kiyomori, given the blessing of the Dragon King (a kami, or divine spirit) and the hand of his daughter in marriage, rises from a provincial samurai family to eventually become the grandfather of an Emperor. We also follow the story of the ancient and traditional Minomoto clan and the clashes of the two families. Scheming and skirmishes abound as the clans and their leaders attempt to navigate the treacherous waters of Imperial politics. Interwoven amongst these events are the actions of various spirits, some hostile, who know that the time of the End of Law is coming and who are each using humans as pawns as they work towards their own ends.
In hands less deft, this profusion of characters and events as well as the extended timeline would be confusing, but Dalkey’s characterizations are rich and easily distinguished from one another, and the story is clearly told. Although it never attains the complex cultural flavor found in works such as Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow, this is a delightful tale that captures the spirit of twelfth century Japan and brings to vivid life the end of an era.