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Book Review: Brilliance of the Moon: Tales of the Otori, Book Three by Lian Hearn

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When Lian Hearn ended the second book in the Tales of the Otori series, the characters and events of the Three Countries were poised atop a steep slope. Quick and chaotic action seemed imminent, and this third installment does not disappoint. Once again, character development drives the story, but this novel strikes a balanced pose between that and the action of a desperate war.

Otori Takeo, narrating in first person, takes the lead, and Hearn directs his evolution with an expert hand. Coming off Grass for His Pillow, Takeo had all the earmarks of a chosen-one hero. He was orphaned, gaining power, and was poised to right past wrongs. He had also seemingly conquered his internal demons. That should have led him to a position of righteous leadership, defeating his enemies after a hard fought battle. Had this saga been a trilogy, had it followed that pattern, it would have been satisfying, albeit forgettable. Instead, Hearn patiently weaves a story in which Takeo does fight battles and even gains some measure of vengeance, but does so amidst an ever-changing tapestry of his own personal conflicts.

Having overcome the internal darkness of his Tribe heritage, Takeo now begins to grapple with the moral conflicts caused by his upbringing as one of the Hidden. A pseudo-Christian group, they have been persecuted by the warrior class for their belief in one god who judges all people equally. This, coupled with an edict of non-violence, is tough medicine for the strict hierarchy of the Three Countries. Takeo constantly claims he has rejected the Hidden beliefs, but those declarations are belied by his own compassion for the less fortunate and an overarching desire for equal justice. Few of his average warriors speak in the novel, but there is a sense that they would heartily disapprove of such tender feelings. This is seen best in Takeo's relationship with Jo-An, a tanner who is treated as unclean because of his profession. It's not often that I run across such quality use of an unreliable narrator, but I enjoyed it immensely here. That Takeo is lying to himself becomes more and more clear as the story progresses, which adds an interesting dimension to his characterization. Furthermore, the nature of the conflict is such that this self-delusion actually repairs some of the damage done to the reader-narrator relationship by his stint with the Tribe in Book Two.

Along with spinning out interesting characters, Hearn has also ratcheted up both the quantity and quality of the action scenes. The fighting in Books One and Two was expertly written, but mostly on an individual scale. Similar combat has been retained in fine fashion in Moon, but now serve as a counter-point to broader battle scenes. Takeo is leading an army and such military might does not go to waste. Both the capture of Maruyama and the failed attempt to rescue Kaede are written with a wonderful mix of poetry, excitement, and desperation. Moreover, the battles are something of a release, for readers and characters alike, which vent the emotions of tense, personal conflicts. The introduction of a pirate nation based on the volcanic island of Oshima also adds an action flair which had been missing from the samurai warriors.

Despite the fact that I enjoyed this novel more than its predecessors, there were still two story elements which struck me as incongruities. The first, a holdover from Grass for His Pillow, is the mildly homosexual relationship between Takeo and his closest friend, the warrior-monk Makoto. It's unclear whether or not they actually had sex at any point in either book, and that alone is enough to get my dander up when one of the people involved is the first-person narrator. I understand why Hearn wanted to incorporate a jealous tension between Takeo, Makoto, and Kaede, but adding romantic suggestions between the two men seemed forced and out of joint with the rest of the story. Likewise, when a pirate captain turns up with a musket rifle he stole from a savage with "skin white as pearl and the hair yellow like the yolk of a bird's egg," I felt a little frustrated. It struck me as hopelessly cliche to be reading a Japanese-inspired novel in which white outsiders are starting to encroach. I was thoroughly engrossed in Hearn's created world, and the sudden introduction of a dead Dutch trader who was a poor shot is just disappointing. What I took to be a completely different world, now has all too familiar strains. And even with my limited knowledge of history, I know where that particular thread leads.

All in all, Brilliance of the Moon, is an artistic, entertaining novel. The story serves as a fine continuation of the Otori tales, which only encourages the reader to continue on to the fourth book (see parts One and Two). The disappointments I registered were minor, pebbles in the shoe, and easily overcome by the story's redeeming qualities. Thus far, Lian Hearn has crafted a fantasy series of such quality that it should be considered a classic in the years to come.

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