Recently I picked up a novel called Across the Nightingale Floor, which is written by Lian Hearn. It’s a pleasure to read a fantasy that is beautifully executed, and with interesting and complex characters. I started reading it before going to sleep with the idea of just reading the first chapter, and next thing the sun was up and the birds were chirping (though dawn is pretty early these days).
The novel is set in an imaginary world which is similar to medieval Japan, and the story revolves around the political feuding between two clans: the Tohan and the Otori. Caught in the middle is Takeo, a young man raised among people who are part of an outlawed pacifist religious sect called the Hidden, and whose father was a member of an little-known group called the Tribe. The story starts with Takeo’s village being massacred by the Tohan, and Takeo’s rescue by Lord Otori Shigeru. Taken to Shigeru’s home town called Hagi, Takeo begins to manifest the talents of a member of the Tribe: preternatural hearing, the ability to become invisible for a short period of time, and to split the self into two. As his training commences, he gets entangled in the political machinations that coincide with Takeo’s own desire for revenge against Lord Iida Sadamu, leader of the Tohan. Also involved in the story is Lady Kaede Skirakawa, hostage to one of Tohan’s allies for seven years, and now of the age to be married for political convenience.
Hearn’s prose is lyrical, simple and evocative. While I’m no expert on medieval Japan, his alternative version appears consistent and realistic. The characters of Takeo and Kaede are particularly well-drawn, and both of them try to forge their own destiny even though they are bound by tradition and duty. Hearn has a particular talent for scene-setting, and he creates a compelling and lush world with his elegant style of writing which exudes a Zen-like simplicity. This is a well-established and realised world, and at 294 pages it’s wonderful to read a story that is fast-paced and doesn’t overstay its welcome. I picked this book up on a whim (though the gorgeous cover – UK edition – did help), and I didn’t notice initially that it is part of a trilogy called Tales of the Otori. The next book due out is Grass for his Pillow, and the first chapter of the second book is provided as a tantalising teaser at the end of Across the Nightingale Floor. I’m certainly planning on purchasing the next instalment on the strength of Hearn’s first novel.