ACROSS THE NIGHTINGALE FLOOR
by Lian Hearn
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
As chance would have it, I was in a bookstore yesterday when another customer asked about good science fiction and fantasy with an Oriental theme. Although it was not yet published, I immediately suggested that she keep an eye out for Lian Hearn's novel Across the Nightingale Floor (along with Kara Dalkey's GenPei). Across the Nightingale Floor is the first book of a trilogy and follows the rescue and coming of age of Tomasu (later Lord Takeo), who begins the book as the only surviving member of his community and ends the book being torn between the conflicting needs of two other communities which lay claim to him.
When the novel opens, Iida, the lord of the Tohan, has led a raid against a village which was home to a community of the Hidden, a religious sect which Iida had declared war against. Only the sixteen year old Tomasu survived the razing, and he was rescued by the popular Lord Otori Shigeru, but not before he earned the enmity of Lord Iida. Shigeru despised the Tohan for their expansionist policies and despotic attitudes. Grieving for the loss of his brother, he instituted adoption proceeding for Tomasu, changing the boy's name to Takeo to try to hide his origins from the Tohan.
Hearn alternate chapters from Tomasu/Takeo's point of view with chapters about Kaede, Lady of the Shirakawa. Although she is from a high family, Kaede is despised by Lord Noguchi and treated as a servant until politics forces him to advance her. Kaede quickly attains an unwelcome reputation and her story becomes linked to Takeo's story when Iida decides she should wed Shigeru to make an alliance between the Tohan and the Otori.
Hearn presents a fully Japanese culture while making it clear that she is not writing an historical novel. The events she describes are well within human ability, although she does introduce a mysticism into the tale by giving Takeo exceptional powers reminiscent of the legends of the yakuza. As these abilities begin to manifest themselves, Shigeru introduces Takeo to Muto Kenji, a man who can teach Takeo to harness these abilities, while also bringing his own agenda to draw Takeo into his community.
Although the plot appears complex, Hearn presents it in a straightforward manner which also allows the reader to speculate on what the story looks like from opposing viewpoints. The way Takeo's story and Kaede's story are woven together, the reader has a clear indication of where the tale is going. Nevertheless, Hearn is more than willing to subvert those expectations by twisting the plot. This ability keeps Across the Nightingale Floor fresh until the final pages.
Across the Nightingale Floor is the first book of a series called "Tales of the Otori," and ends with Takeo vowing vengeance against those who have done him wrong and have not received justice. Nevertheless, the novel can be read on its own and enjoyed without the feeling that the next installment is necessary in order to fully appreciate the world and characters Hearn's has created. At the same time, the knowledge that Across the Nightingale Floor is only the first book of a series leaves the reader with the knowledge that soon Takeo and Kaedu will once again be having adventures the reader can enjoy.
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