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Across the Nightingale Floor: Book One: Tales of the Otori
Lian Hearn
Riverhead Books, 304 pages

Across the Nightingale Floor
Lian Hearn
Lian Hearn is a pseudonym. Born in England and currently living in Australia, the author attended Oxford University, has studied Japanese and has a lifelong interest in Japan.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Across the Nightingale Floor
Tales of the Otori

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

In 1600, after consolidating their power over today's Yamaguchi Prefecture in the western end of Honshu Island, the Mori family suffered a defeat at the Battle of Sekigahara, after which the family was deprived of almost all of its territory and forced to retreat to the coastal city of Hagi. The resulting hatred of the Choshu clan, whose center was at Hagi, provided the prime motivity that eventually resulted in the toppling of the Edo shogunate 260 years later, ushering in the Meiji Restoration.

Pseudonymous Australian author Lian Hearn has chosen to loosely construct her debut around a fictional imagining of the struggle for power between Japan's feudal clans immediately following Sekigahara (here named Yaegahara). Substituting the Otori for the Choshu, their hereditary lord, Shigeru, has assumed the role of retired warrior, attending his estates while allowing his uncles, appointed in his stead by the victorious Iida Sidamu, to rule over what remains of the Otori family's former domains. Yet this fašade of acceptance of his family's change of fortune masks a deeper desire for revenge, especially after the murder of his brother, Takeshi, at the hands of Sidamu's Tohan clan. Seemingly spurred by his grief, Shigeru takes to aimlessly wandering the remoter lands of the Tohan, which leads to his coincidental rescue of a boy, Tomasu, as he flees from warriors that have destroyed his village, murdering his entire family. Taking the lad under his wing, Shigeru aids in his escape, in part motivated by the fact that the warriors are Sidamu's. Yet there may be more to Shigeru's aid than mere antipathy towards the Tohan clan. Tomasu bears a striking resemblance to Shigeru's murdered brother, and both the lord and the boy now share an enmity towards Iida and his warriors, reinforced by similar tragedies. Despite Tomasu's rough, homespun origins, and his upbringing among the Hidden, an outlawed religious sect bearing a vague resemblance to Christianity, Shigeru decides to adopt the boy, renaming him Takeo.

Taken into Shigeru's home in Hagi, protected and disguised from Tohan vengeance by his new identity, Takeo begins to learn the disciplines necessary to assume his changed circumstances, that of a young Otori lord. But though his origins remain hidden to all but Shigeru and his closest retainers, a mysterious acquaintance of Shigeru's arrives in Hagi, wishing to inspect the boy. A member of the shadowy Tribe, and a sometime ally of the Otori, Muto Kenji knows things about Takeo's birth that leads him to suspect that the lad is more than some rural refugee, and that Shigeru is aware of this identity, too. Takeo has talents that are just beginning to emerge -- hearing beyond the ken of ordinary men, an ability to blend into the background -- that mark him as being one of the Tribe. Kenji has come to claim him, but at both Shigeru and Takeo's insistence, instead stays on to become Takeo's tutor, training him in skills that within a different fantasy context might be described as sorcery. Meanwhile, Takeo comes to believe that Shigeru has a plan for him.

Named after the historical uguisubari-rouka or nightingale floors, corridors constructed around many temples and dwellings in order to warn of intrusion, this novel is a conscious attempt to evoke not only the natural world and culture of feudal Japan during one of many periods of unrest, but also, according to the author (, an effort to reflect the " concept of ma: the space between that enables perception to occur." "Fascinated by the use of silence and asymmetry," Ms. Hearn has intentionally written her narrative in a "style [which] is spare, elliptical and suggestive." This approach is most successful in her descriptions of the natural world, as well as certain suggestions as to her characters' personalities and motivations. However, at times the writing in Across the Nightingale Floor appears too lean, and there are missed opportunities in both characterization and description where a greater fleshing out of the narrative would have provided the depth necessary to engage the reader fully, with certain episodes and players left attenuated upon the surface of the story, figures such as Yuki, Arai, Junko and Kotaro essentially reduced to walk-ons almost entirely in service to manipulations of the plot, whereas other characters, such as Terada Fumio, the Gemba brothers and the priest Makoto abruptly appear and are dismissed, one assumes to reappear in later books. Many of the villains in this novel become more reflections of each other -- Iida Sidamu and Noguchi Masayoshi, Ando and Abe -- pairs that fail to entirely achieve differentiated individuality. And in particular the ultimate tragedy of Lady Maruyama is dispensed with in such brevity as to leave the reader wishing for more: a potential for drama that sinks as swiftly as the bodies in the river.

Where spare verges upon ephemeral is most evident in the opening to the novel: within the first ten pages we are introduced to Tomaso/Takeo; provided a synopsis of his character and family history as well as the religion of the Hidden; view the destruction of his village; receive our first hint at hidden talents; watch as beyond all expectation he discomfits the warlord Iida Sidamu; his flight and pursuit into the mountains; the rescue by Shigeru; and his renaming by the Otori lord. Like tallying up a scorecard, the author rushes through the initial staging of the story in order to begin the central relationship between Takeo and Shigeru. Had the author shown more patience as well as devotion to the opening integrity of her novel, the start to her story would have seemed far less hasty and contrived. As it was, these pages nearly led me to put the book down, as I anticipated the rest of the novel to continue its sketchily laid out beginnings.

But perhaps the most problematic aspect of Across the Nightingale Floor is found in its romantic elements. While a forbidden love, and the anticipated struggle to attain it, is nothing new, indeed almost perhaps anticipated by readers of other Western romances of Japanese culture such as Shogun, its basic handling here does create an effective if conventional sense of desire and longing. However, a rehash of love at first sight, complete with uncontrollable trembling, illness lacking physical cause, looks that drown the soul, and all the other over-wrought nonsense that typifies poorly-written melodramas, is too obvious and mawkish not to significantly impair the rest of the narrative, at least for all but the most credulous. And the eventual consummation beside a bleeding body while imminent danger threatens thrusts the notion of romance utterly into the absurd. While a link has been established between sex and violence, this scene is a bit overmuch!

In striving to achieve a narrative form of ma, I would suggest that the author has perhaps not recognized that not every philosophy readily translates into art, and while such an approach found successful expression in haiku and the Zen influenced paintings of Sesshu, whom the author obviously admires, narrative fiction, especially conventional adventure fiction, may not be the most salubrious format through which to achieve this aesthetic. Evidence of this is apparent when comparing the evocative poem selected from Manyoshu that opens this narrative with the text that follows: the latter never comes close to evincing the subtle beauty, poignancy or unstated imagery contained within the verse. And while such comparison may be unfair to the author (or maybe not, depending upon where one allows for benefit of the doubt), it nonetheless points to the problem of translating an aesthetic from one medium to another, especially a medium quite different in its overall and underlying intentions and assumptions. Granted, this novel does display moments, especially during natural description, when the author succeeds in applying this aesthetic. But when used in broader strokes, it fails to convince, the narrative demanding more information that the author can attempt tied to her spare approach. Ironically, it is the very economy of her method that ultimately undermines this work.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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