Book Review: Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn
Genre: Historical fantasy,
Series: Tales of the Otori #1
Publisher: Riverhead Books (January 2002)
Author Info: www.lianhearn.com
Wendy’s Rating – 3.5 of 5 stars
The infamous Nightingale Floor is a skilfully designed trap that signs the presence of any who walk across. The perfect piece of home improvement for the man who fears assassination. In this case, the home owner in question is Iida, a wicked ruler in Hearn’s feudal Japan-esque fantasy tale.
Iida has many enemies, not the least of which is the much loved Lord Otori, who, at the beginning of the book, finds a young boy, the only survivor of the brutal massacre of his village. Furthermore, the boy, in his escape, manages to unhorse Lord Iida, marking him for certain death, well beyond his status as a member of the Hidden. But Lord Otori defends him and escapes with him, later adopting him into his home and naming the boy, now called Takeo, his heir.
There is a lot more to Takeo than even he realizes, not the least of which is the fact that he is a ninja and thereby a member of the mysterious and deadly Tribe. This is one of the few places where the story troubled me a bit. Apparently, the powers of the Tribe show up at sixteen years old, so we conveniently get all of that within the first part of the story when Lord Otori brings Takeo home with him. These SUDDENLY NINJA! powers involve a lot of really cool tricks that Takeo learns to use with the help of Master Kenji, a member of the Tribe himself, and friend to Takeo. Takeo’s most notable skill is his acute hearing. Convenient for learning how to defeat a singing floor in order to assassinate a wicked dictator.
As the story goes on, we learn that the Tribe are all over the place, as well as members of the peaceful and spiritual Hidden. Moreover, we learn that everyone seems to know who and what Takeo was before he ever did and everyone wants him. He’s sworn fealty to Lord Otori, though, and vowed vengeance against Lord Iida.
Meanwhile, a young girl, Kaede, has been held hostage in Iida’s fortress for almost half of her life. As she comes into her own, she learns that she is quite beautiful, and thereby something of interest to the men. But due to unfortunate events, some of the men who try to claim her end up dead, earning her a reputation she is none too pleased with. When she is betrothed to Lord Otori, she fears for his life, as he is a kind and respected man, but worse, she instantly falls in love with his adopted son, Takeo. I can’t say I enjoyed Kaede’s role much, especially when she falls into simpering illness over her love of Takeo. At least she picks herself up in the end and serves greater purpose, though she still, ultimately, failed to endear herself to me. I am not opposed to female characters who do need some rescuing here and there, and can certainly appreciate the pain of depression, but lovesick fool was a little much for me.
Interestingly, the story is mostly told through Takeo’s first person point of view, while Kaede’s chapters are told through third person. Unfortunately, while I appreciated Takeo, I wasn’t enamoured with him enough to worry about what he will do next.
I did enjoy Hearn’s world and its similarities with Japanese culture. If you’re looking for historical and cultural accuracy, you may be disappointed, but that’s on you if you need your fantasy to be heavily laden with facts. I for one am always pleased when speculative fiction writers step outside the standard formats to give me something a little different. I also liked that the ending did not at all go where it seemed to be leading. Or rather, it did, but in a wholly unexpected way.