Across the Nightingale Floor
by Lian Hearn
When Tomasu’s rural village is slaughtered by the cruel leader of the Tohan, he is adopted by Lord Shigeru, who is from a rival clan called the Otori. Shigeru renames the boy Takeo and begins teaching him the traditions of the warrior class. Made temporarily mute by the horrors he witnessed, Takeo discovers that his hearing has grown sharper, a trait that identifies him as one of “The Tribe”, a secret group of supernaturally gifted spies and killers. Other special abilities emerge as well, enabling Takeo to stop an assassination attempt on Shigeru. Shigeru decides to adopt Takeo as his heir, but powerful members of the Otori family are opposed to his wish.
Meanwhile, in the castle of the Noguchi, Kaede Shirakawa has been held hostage since she was seven years old. She has developed a reputation as a cursed woman because men who desire her die, although through no fault of her own. It is decided that she will marry Lord Shigeru, forming an alliance between the Tohan and the Otori. Kaede is sent to meet her future husband, but it is Takeo that she falls in love with.
When I first picked up this book, I was puzzled that it was shelved in the fantasy/science fiction section. It seemed like it was set in feudal Japan and involved ninjas and samurai – what’s so fantastical about that? But the book is conveniently not set in Japan, but in “The Three Countries,” a decision that allows author Lian Hearn to run wild with Japanese mythology and history without being bound to it.
Some of the Japanese influences are obvious, of course. The Tribe = ninjas. The social classes all follow feudal Japan – there’s the Emperor, nobles/courtiers, warriors, merchants, peasants, and outcasts who do the jobs no one else will do – and of course all the names are Japanese. It’s friggin’ Japan. I thought it interesting that the religions of the book also follow Japanese history. I don’t know *why* this surprised me, but there it is. Takeo’s family were members of “The Hidden”, a religious sect with practices and beliefs that sound suspiciously like Christianity, while others follow the teachings of the Enlightened One (Buddha-but-not-Buddha) or a Shinto-esque religion. A lot of careful research went into the making of this book, which makes me wonder: did the author always intend to write a book set in not-Japan, and if not at what point did he decide to move his setting to a fictional universe?
So anyway. Yes. Across the Nightingale Floor. It is so, so good. The story’s a little predictable, since it follows the standard Hero’s Journey (thanks, Joseph Campbell!) but it’s well-written, with great characters. But there’s tons of action – like I said, samurais and ninjas – and the fight scenes are really well-written. Too well, in some cases…a couple of passages are pretty freakin’ graphic.
This is probably the first book in a long, long time where I finished it and IMMEDIATELY had to hunt down the next book in the series. I just had to know what would happen to Takeo, who is torn between the worlds of the Tribe and the Otori, and whether Kaede’s fierce independence would be enough to let her determine her own destiny. I recommend it very highly!
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