ONE BOY. ONE JOURNEY. ONE HIDDEN DESTINY.
Heavily inspired by Japanese folklore, the first book of Lian Hearn’s Tales Of The Otori, is full of eastern promise.
Across The Nightingale Floor
(Tales Of The Otori, Book 1)
Genre: Historical Fantasy, Young Adult
Format: Paperback, 320 Pages
Date: 2nd April 2004 (First Published 2002)
Across The Nightingale Floor is a tale of revenge, love, betrayal, duty, treachery, honour and destiny in a fictional land known as the Three Countries, which bears an uncanny resemblance to—but is not—feudal Japan. Its narrative unfolds from the viewpoint of the story’s two protagonists, a teenage boy and girl from very different worlds.
Born and raised among a persecuted religious minority known as The Hidden, young Tomasu/Takeo’s life is turned upside down when his entire village is wiped out by the forces of the blood-thirsty warlord, Iida Sadamu, of the oppressive Tohan clan. Takeo flees the scene of the massacre, but in doing so inadvertently offends Iida, whose men pursue Takeo into the wilderness, where he is rescued by a wandering stranger.
Unbeknown to Takeo, fate has delivered him to Lord Otori Shigeru of the Otori clan, who sets him on the path to discover his secret heritage and birthright, as a descendant of The Tribe—a shadowy group of spies and assassins with mystical powers. Abilities that once mastered, will allow Takeo to exact revenge against Lord Iida and the Tohan; for himself, as well as his new adopted father, Lord Shigeru.
The female protagonist meanwhile, is fifteen year old Lady Shirakawa Kaede of the Seishuu clan, who since early childhood has been a captive of the Noguchi clan—staunch allies of the Tohan. Her captivity is the result of her clan being on the losing side of a war; and the means to maintain political stability by ensuring no further armed conflict.
Kaede spends her days lamenting that she is merely a pawn in a man’s world, with no choices and no hope of being reunited with her family. Her misery is exacerbated further when she unwittingly earns herself a reputation for bringing death to any man who desires her.
It’s not long before fate intervenes and a marriage is arranged for Kaede. A marriage which will see her cross paths with Takeo, and become embroiled in two conflicting conspiracies: one to eliminate Lord Shigeru, and cement an alliance between the Tohan and the treacherous leaders of the Otori; the other to assassinate Lord Iida and liberate the Three Countries from the scourge of the Tohan clan.
Across The Nightingale Floor has all the ingredients that make for a memorable and truly epic fantasy tale; action, political intrigue, romance, vendettas, deception, a great setting, and compelling characters. It is beautifully written, with flowing, easy to digest prose; but sadly it does not attain the heights that it could and should have reached.
On occasions in the past I have bemoaned the slow pace of a novel, but I don’t recall ever complaining about the opposite; a novel that moves too quickly for its own good. Yet the main issue I have with Across The Nightingale Floor stems from the fact that its plot advances too rapidly, causing me to feel that the story is at least 200 pages too short.
Aside from the two protagonists, author Lian Hearn has also created several outstanding supporting characters for her story, but due to the books brief length they don’t get the level of development they could have done—so not nearly enough is revealed about their back-stories and motivations—with the notable exception of Lord Shigeru.
It would have been great to get to know some of these figures much better. Like Shizuka, the seemingly simple and mischievous servant girl—with a closely guarded secret and hidden agenda—assigned to Kaede; Lady Maruyama Naomi, the powerful matriarchal figure of the Seishuu clan—and secret lover of Lord Shigeru—whose own daughter, Mariko, is a captive of the Tohan; Muto Kenji, an associate of Shigeru, and member of The Tribe, who mentors Takeo; Lord Iida Sadamu, the Tohan leader, and feared antogonist of the novel; even Yuki, the very capable daughter of Kenji.
One of the regrettable consequences of the lack of development for the supporting characters, is that the deaths of some of these individuals don’t have the impact that they might have had, if readers knew the characters better and were given more time to grow attached to them.
Having said that, the lack of development for secondary characters, may not be an issue for most readers. It was only a bone of contention for myself, because I invariably find supporting characters much more interesting than protagonists.
The novel’s only other flaw, is its bitter-sweet ending, which is rather abrupt and very anti-climactic. I don’t know whether or not the decision to end the story in the manner it does, was due to a desire by either the author or publisher to conclude the tale as swiftly as possible. But I strongly suspect that the book’s brevity is the result of wanting Across The Nightingale Floor to be equally accessible to young teenage readers as well as adults.
That being said, prospective readers should not be put off reading by the few negatives which are greatly outweighed by the positives, making this book a must read title for those who love a fantasy yarn heavily inspired by Japanese folklore.
Across The Nightingale Floor is a compelling revenge tale, brimming with secrets and lies, selfless sacrifice, acts of betrayal, courageous endeavours, and doomed romance.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.