Whenever I take up a new series, I always hesitate to read book two, especially if I liked the first one. The sophomore slump is a dangerous thing, you see. A promising athlete's second season is often disappointing, and sequels have a disheartening way of losing what made their predecessors great (see under Transformers). Not so with Lian Hearn. Picking up immediately after the conclusion of Across the Nightingale Floor, the second book in the Tales of the Otori successfully expands the fantasy world, while also improving on its principle characters.
My biggest gripe with the first book was Kaede, the main love interest. The chapters which told her story dragged in my opinion. More than that, she struck me as a whiner, much too fragile to be likable. It seems Hearn felt much the same. Within five pages, the character does a complete one-eighty, shedding her irritating helplessness and, even as she changes clothes, becoming a stronger person. At the end of Nightingale, Takeo left Kaede in a trance, and, as she comes out of it in chapter one of Grass, she has a vision of a deity called the White Goddess. This combination of experiences immediately plants the seed of change. Rather than use this as a deus ex machina to transform the girl into a warrior-princess, Hearn deftly and patiently gives Kaede the characterization so desperately absent before. While I feel hard pressed to call the transformation complete by novel's end, there is no doubt that Hearn has created a much stronger, more sympathetic character who can drive the plot independent of Takeo.
As it is really his story, the boy wonder Takeo, the chosen one of this fantasy cycle, undergoes his own changes. Rather than the smooth, linear progression of Kaede, who is gathering power in a patriarchal society, Takeo's evolution is much more circuitous. The dual nature of his identity seemed more of a benefit than a hindrance in the first book. In Grass, it's a downright metaphysical punch up. Takeo has been adopted into the Otori and is the rightful heir to clan leadership. Of course, his adoptive uncles don't see it that way and would much rather him become a corpse. As if that weren't enough, he is bound by blood and oath to the Tribe, a collection of assassin families. Very much his father's son, Takeo possesses powers far beyond the normal Tribe member, and his deadly relatives are bent on seeing him shaped into a human weapon. Both the external conflict between these two factions, as well as the war they create in Takeo's soul, is expertly developed and gives the story an intricate and intentionally confused feel.
The rivalry between the Otori and Tribe could have been constructed as a simple good versus evil scenario, but Hearn proves herself a much more capable storyteller. There are certainly light/dark overtones; the lessons of Otori Shigeru are honorable and true, while Tribe masters preach deception and death. Indeed, the more time Takeo spends with the Tribe, the less likable he becomes as a character. Although he is never quite as despicable as those around him, I still thought it a powerful risk to take with the main character. For a time, he turns cynical, cold, and murderous. As a reader, I even feared that he would be completely lost and become a nemesis in the story, perhaps in contrast to Kaede's rising strength. When his Tribe duties send him back to Otori lands, back to Shigeru's house, however, the awakening begins. As with Kaede at the story's start, only the seeds of strength are planted, and Takeo's growth away from the Tribe is carefully managed through betrayal, flight, turmoil and repose.
Ultimately, it is Hearn's masterful use of the run-around which raises the series to a new level. Even when Takeo finally rejects the Tribe, choosing to embrace his Otori heritage (which, I must say, was made a little too convenient through exposition for my taste), he cannot simply rush home. Too many people want him dead. The Tribe is after him for breaking faith, while the current Otori lords, his uncles, need to consolidate their power with his assassination. Then there is the matter of Arai, the current major player on the continent. He took over after the events which end Nightingale, and he was pretty pissed at Takeo for joining the Tribe. He doesn't turn up in the story, and no one seems to know how he's going to react. Finally, there's Kaede to consider. She's built up her own power base and stands ready to inherit another. While she and Takeo are still passionately in love, a lot has happened while they were apart, and it's not clear what effect those things will have on their renewed relationship.
Hearn has certainly stirred the pot in this story, positioning a complex network of characters and events just on the edge of action. That, if you ask me, is the right way to handle a sequel.