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Grass for His Pillow
Lian Hearn
Riverhead Books, 288 pages

Grass for His Pillow
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
SF Site Review: Across the Nightingale Floor
Tales of the Otori

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Cindy Lynn Speer

In Across the Nightingale Floor, Takeo and his beloved Kaede, Lady Shirakawa triumphed over the cruel overlord Iida, but at great price. Arai Daiichi has taken over, and desires that Takeo, with his Otori connections, and Kaede be wed, which would be lovely if Takeo hadn't already promised himself to the Tribe, whose blood runs in his veins. He has the most powerful combination of Kikuta gifts, and this makes him invaluable to the Tribe, who work in secret; their superhuman abilities (Takeo, for example, can put people to sleep and make himself invisible) making them valuable spies and assassins. He leaves Kaede, and their paths diverge for a time. He goes with the Tribe, who demand uncompromising obedience, and who, hiding him from the angry Arai, train him further in their ways. Sickened by some of the things they force him to do and too strong willed to bend easily, Takeo begins to make other plans.

Kaede and her friend Shizuka travel to Kaede's home, where she hopes that her family will welcome her and her unborn child. The child is Takeo's, created in a moment of passion when both thought they would die, and Shizuka tells Kaede to say that she and Lord Otori Shigeru, Takeo's adopted and murdered father were wed in a rushed ceremony. She finds, instead of a warm home, a place stripped bare by poverty and by grief over the death of her mother. Her father, ashamed that he could not kill himself and half crazed is not exactly thrilled by the mannish nature of his daughter. Her desire is to make her lands great again and pursue her inheritance, for her cousin left her a powerful estate where many will soon gather to fight over.

Once again Lian Hearn has created a delicately and beautifully wrought tale. Almost any book you read, even though it's not meant exclusively for just men or just women, does have its own gender. You can step back from the novel, and decide, for example that its main elements make it mostly a woman's story. Grass for His Pillow is one of the rare exceptions. Hearne gently halves male and female, giving us both kinds of tales. Takeo goes on an adventure in a very male story, told in the more powerful first person, where he fights, kills, makes love without real love and does what he has to do -- all in the name of honor. He feels he has no choice and, in the end, a lot of this is really about that honor; to whom does he owe his honor, what path should he really be following. Is following your honor always the same thing as being right?

Kaede's story is much more female despite the fact that she is becoming more and more "male" in order to accomplish her goals. She is a powerful female in a society that takes power away from women, but she's not going to give up her lands without a fight. She feels empowered because she has broken the biggest taboo. She has taken the life of a man and not any man, but the powerful Warlord Iida. Watching her learn how to write like a man, watching her as she tries to learn what she must and keep herself strong is really interesting, especially since it has the social mores of ancient Japan as an integral part of this whole process.

The setting, of a slightly fantasized Medieval Japan, is absolutely beautiful. Hearn is careful to use the history and background to create a very unusual and exotic place, inescapable in both its beauty and cruelty.

Grass for His Pillow reads so easily, the prose flowing as smoothly as a heron flying over a lake. It is, essentially, a middle book, carrying us from the huge events of the first and preparing us for the climax of the second, but it makes for a pleasant journey all the same.

Copyright © 2003 Cindy Lynn Speer

Cindy Lynn Speer loves books so much that she's designed most of her life around them, both as a librarian and a writer. Her books aren't due out anywhere soon, but she's trying. You can find her site at

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