Lian Hearn's debut fantasy cum period piece Across the Nightingale Floor, the
first in the Tales of the Otori trilogy, created not a little stir in the
publishing world prior to its release. How much of that stir was due to its
"epic visions and bold inventiveness," as its co-publisher said, and how much to
astute marketing is open to interpretation. But its spare style evokes a
surprisingly lush story, and its setting in a time and place based on medieval
feudal Japan is a fresh one for many fantasy and literary readers. In bold yet
gentle strokes as beautiful as Japanese brush calligraphy, Hearn weaves an epic
tale of identity, love and loss on a loom of warlords and assassins.
Takeo is on the far edge of boyhood in his remote mountain village, trying to
squeeze the last few sweet drops of his youth out of life before he chooses a
girl to marry and steps across the line into the full responsibility of manhood.
When he returns from a solitary foray over the mountain beyond the village, he
finds it aflame and cruelly murdered bodies littering the ground. Their peaceful
but outlawed religious community of the Hidden has been sundered like an anthill
under the stallion hoof of the ruling Tohan clan, those few who could escaped
into the mountains. Takeo himself is nearly taken by the Tohan invaders, but
rescued for obscure reasons by a lord of a different clan, Otori Shigeru. Takeo
binds himself to Shigeru for having saved his life, but grief and a smoldering
hunger for revenge turn him mute as the lord and the boy make their way to the
Otori ancestral home in Hagi.
As Takeo's silence lengthens, his hearing grows preternaturally acute. The
Otori lord notes this with some interest, and when they reach Hagi he summons an
old acquaintance to tutor Takeo -- an old acquaintance who happens to be of the Tribe, a secretive group of ninja-like assassins with
inherent abilities that, with the proper training, are both mystical and lethal.
Takeo learns of a subversive network crossing clan lines hoping to overthrow the
Tohan stranglehold, and Shigeru is a vital thread. Shigeru himself is grieving
the loss of his brother to conspirators, and holds a grudge as great as Takeo
against the Tohan lord, Iida Sadamu. Shigeru's uncles, whom he suspects of
involvement in his brother's death, agree to allow him to adopt Takeo if he will
consent to marry the hostage daughter of a Tohan ally, a girl rumored to curse
any man who desires her. Shigeru agrees, even though his heart secretly lies
with a beautiful widow whom the Tohan lord wants for himself, for it will put
him -- and Takeo -- within sword's reach of the man they both burn to see dead.
This is storytelling on the grand scale packed gracefully into under 300
pages, an epic of intrigue and star-crossed loves, of honor and desperation.
Across the Nightingale Floor deserves every kudo heaped upon it; the worst that
any fantasy reader has had to say about it is that it is too spare -- a welcome
criticism in a genre of increasingly bloated volumes. And, no surprise, its
sweeping story in a compact frame lends itself well to the big screen; film
rights have already been snapped up, and guaranteed this first tale of the Otori
will not be so indecipherably complicated for moviegoers to unravel as The Lord
of the Rings without their having first read the book. Lit snobs don't have to be afraid of looking bad when they cross into genre territory here.