The Harsh Cry of the Heron
by Lian Hearn
Takeo and Kaede have jointly ruled the Three Countries for sixteen years, bringing prosperity and peace. They have three beautiful daughters, and all should be well, but Takeo is ever haunted by the prophecy made in his youth that he will be killed by his son. Takeo has kept Kaede ignorant of the prediction, and the existence of his son…who has been raised by Kikuta Akio, Takeo’s greatest enemy in the Tribe. When Takeo’s right to power is questioned by the distant Emperor, Lord Zenko – who has never forgiven Takeo for the death of his father, Lord Arai – and his wife begin to plot to take over the Three Countries for themselves. As Takeo’s supporters are eliminated one by one, and war threatens to return to the Three Countries, can he and Kaede protect their kingdom?
Everything about The Harsh Cry of the Heron seems to fall short. The spare, deft writing Lian Hearn used for the previous Otori novels has been replaced with prose that has a tendency to lunge into florid, purple territory. (Some of the love scenes made me guffaw in a most unladylike fashion. There may have been snorting.) Takeo’s first-person narrative is replaced with a clunky, omniscient third person. The characters, especially our principles, don’t act consistently with their previous behavior. I mean, I know people change after fifteen years but it I was especially disappointed with Takeo and Kaede. At the beginning of the novel, Takeo’s reunited with his sister Madaren. She’s become an interpreter for the foreigners that trade with the Otoris, and could provide valuable assistance to her brother. But he coldly turns her away, and feels little joy at seeing her. Instead, he’s irritated because she might give away his humble origin. This is not how someone reputed to be compassionate and just should act! Meanwhile, many of Kaede’s actions – which I can’t go into detail about because it would be major spoilers – just seem at odds with her personality.
I did enjoy the first three-fourths of the novel, as the intrigues against the Otoris are built up and Takeo travels to the capital to meet the Emperor. It was complex and highly entertaining. But the final part of the story is when everything starts to unravel, and the last few chapters are a HUGE letdown. It feels rushed, like the author suddenly started scrambling to close plot holes and tie up loose threads. The final fate of several key characters is narrated to us by Makoto, rather than directly experienced through the text. Other characters are left hanging – we never find out what happens to Shizuka, for example, who we last see praying at a temple, being fed by birds. She’s head of the Muto family, but does she keep that role? Does she keep on praying forever? What happens to her?
In and of itself, The Harsh Cry of the Heron wasn’t such a bad novel. As a standalone fantasy/alternative history book, it’s pretty average. But given how much I loved the previous volumes of the series, it was a serious disappointment. The magical realism of the trilogy – the Tribe’s skills are impressive, but no more ‘magical’ than their real-world ninja counterparts – is abandoned for a world filled with ghosts and demonic possession. So many new characters were introduced that old characters weren’t given time to develop, or seemed to develop new personalities with no explanation for why it happened. If you’ve read the original Otori trilogy, and you’re debating whether to add this book to your collection, I’d advise you to skip it. You’ll only be disappointed.
3 out of 5 stars