Across the Nightingale Floor
Lian Hearn
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Buy *Across the Nightingale Floor: Tales of the Otori, Book One* online Across the Nightingale Floor: Tales of the Otori, Book One
Lian Hearn
Riverhead Books
304 pages
August 2002
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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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.

Sixteen-year-old 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.

© 2003 by Sharon Schulz-Elsing for Curled Up With a Good Book

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