Growing up, I spent the bulk of my library hours wandering the 'Sci-Fi/Fantasy' section, totally enamored of imaginary worlds. What I came to realize, however, was that the majority of those novels reflected a decidedly Western point of view. Maybe it's a part of the Tolkien legacy, but nearly every sword and sorcery book I've read is cast in a vaguely European mold. So, it was with excited curiosity that I pulled down Lian Hearn's Asian-inspired Across the Nightingale Floor, the first book in her "Tales of the Otori" series.
Set in a fictional world based on feudal Japan, Nightingale centers on the teenage boy Takeo who has grown up with his mother's people, the Hidden, a spiritual group being persecuted for their beliefs. When his village is destroyed by the Tohan (a dominant, warlike clan), he escapes with the help of Shigeru, a Lord of the Otori. Shigeru adopts him and guides Takeo to the discovery of his true heritage as a member of the Tribe, a mysterious group of families who use their magical abilities to become assassins. Torn between his loyalty to the Otori and his dark parentage, Takeo becomes an unwilling participant in the war for control of the Three Countries.
My initial surprise at finding an Eastern influenced fantasy gradually gave way to surprise at not seeing more. Magic and mysticism is just as prevalent in the Asian tradition as it is in the Anglo-Celtic world. The biggest difference is the way in which it's treated. In our traditional fantasy novels, much is made of the magical character's abilities. There is usually a significant build-up to the use of power or spells, and it's often a complex affair. In the East, the magic simply happens as a natural course. Hearn avoids any long technical description of Takeo's preternatural hearing or the physical demands of creating his 'second-self.' Instead these things are introduced as an anticipated result of his training in the ways of the Tribe. The ability to become invisible, for example, is drawn out of him rather than intensively learned. It is so subtly handled that reader will likely accept these powers before realizing they are even present.
There is precedent for this in Asian films which have found commercial success in the West, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Iron Monkey. In these movies, the audience is asked to accept without explanation that the main characters are capable of things like flight or wall-shattering punches. Compare this to comic book movies like Spider-man, which spend oodles of screen time in back-story. Nightingale artfully falls into this Asian philosophy. Takeo's abilities principally grow off-screen, as it were, so that the story can keep pace and move forward.
By and large, the novel is an engaging, quick read. The narration is passed between Takeo's first person and a third person subjective, focusing on the young girl Kadae. Also starting in a down-and-out position, she eventually becomes Takeo's love interest, a plot point I found much too predictable. The story is well on its way to climax by the time the two teenagers meet and instantly fall in love. Indeed, I found the Kadae chapters difficult to read in places, as they were not as well written and did less to advance the plot than Takeo's voice. Her whining and largely unresolved fragility felt like a drag on the story, contrasting sharply with intriguing and well-developed characterization elsewhere. While Kadae and her plight were not enough to make me stop reading, I must admit to a certain amount of skimming through her sections.
Despite some drawbacks, however, Hearn is an adroit user of the secretive and surprising. The Tribe is wrapped in rumor and mystery, and even though Takeo learns a great deal about his abilities, the workings of the organization are left largely unexplained. The result is that when a group of the assassin-warriors turn up late in the novel, they have an immediately threatening power which is simultaneously vague and tangible. Likewise, the clan politics which dominate the Otori are revealed both as passing suspicions and significant revelations, each in their proper turn. Even the ending–which I must admit could not happen as it does without Kadae–caught me pleasantly off-guard.
Like the traditional fantasy series, there is plenty of story left to be told beyond the first novel. A whole created world frames Takeo's adventures, but there are vast swaths of country still unexplored. Most significantly, though, Hearn has opened up a cycle of stories which uses its Asian roots faithfully. There was a great danger here, I think, for the Japanese influence to come off as trite or forced, especially since Hearn is British by birth. It could have opened up a whole world of post-colonial awkwardness, for example. Fortunately for the reader, Across the Nightingale Floor is an honest and satisfying fantasy written by a talented author.