Across the Nightingale Floor (2002): Lian Hearn


Tales of the Otori: Book I

I’ve wanted to read this for years. Although I only visited Tokyo last year, I’ve long been interested in certain aspects of Japanese history: the samurai, especially, and the codes of honour and nobility that governed their society. I was intrigued by Hearn’s world, which is inspired by medieval Japan and promised to be refreshingly different from the pseudo-European fantasy norm. And yet, when I began reading yesterday morning, it was with some trepidation. After all, when you’ve looked forward to reading something for so long, there’s always a fear that it might not be as good as you expected. Fortunately that fear was unwarranted. The book lived up to its reputation and dragged me, wide-eyed and wondering, into a thrilling tale of revenge, intrigue and forbidden love.

At the age of sixteen, Tomasu knows little of the outside world. His family and neighbours follow the gentle but outlawed faith of the Hidden, and he is oblivious to the clan feuds and power struggles brewing beyond his tiny mountain village. The world, however, will come to him. When his people are massacred by the army of the ruthless warlord Iida, Tomasu is the only survivor; and he, too, would have died if his desperate flight from a pair of soldiers hadn’t led him straight into the arms of an unexpected saviour. As a great lord and scion of the Otori clan, Lord Shigeru is from a very different world to this frightened peasant boy, but he takes pity on Tomasu – perhaps because he already has an idea how he might be useful.

As he follows Shigeru back to the clan’s castle town of Hagi, Tomasu acquires both a new name – Takeo – and a bewildering new future as the adoptive heir presumptive of a powerful nobleman. But he will soon realise that other currents run beneath the apparently placid surface of his new life. For all his compassion, Shigeru is driven by a deep desire for revenge against Iida and his clan, the Tohan, who were responsible for the murder of Shigeru’s brother Takeshi. And, although Shigeru does his best to teach Takeo everything that could be useful for a gentleman, Takeo knows that the most important lessons are those with Muto Kenji, who teaches him to develop strange gifts: supernaturally acute hearing; the ability to appear in two places at once; and even to become invisible. These talents may be of great use to Shigeru, but it soon becomes clear that they are also being monitored by Kenji’s mysterious clan, the Tribe, who are far from ready to let a youngster of Takeo’s quality live beyond their control.

Across the country, fifteen-year-old Kaede has a miserable existence as the hostage of the Noguchi family, who treat her as little better than a servant, even though she’s the daughter of an old and distinguished family. Now that she’s growing to womanhood her position among the rough men of the household guard becomes increasingly untenable and, when she receives unexpected help from Lord Noguchi’s captain, Arai, she is at last moved to quarters more appropriate for her rank. Yet this elevation comes at a price. Kaede discovers that she is a pawn in a complex game of intrigues and alliances, which will doubtless marry her off to a grotesque old man three times her age. When a match is finally agreed, with a member of the northern Otori family, she sets off to her marriage in despair, accompanied by her sprightly maid Shizuka, her distant cousin Lady Maruyama, and the assurance of Arai’s concern for her welfare. But Kaede isn’t yet aware that her wedding promises to be far more than the joining of two ancient houses. It will also be the event around which several plots twist and turn, and she is about to plunge into the heart of a bitter battle, where the only alternative to victory is death.

Across the Nightingale Floor is marketed as ‘young adult’, which is a genre that I find increasingly unhelpful because it puts people (like me) off reading novels which turn out to be as creative, complex and inspiring as any book aimed at ‘grown ups’. This novel, and the other ‘young adult’ book I read recently – Laura Lam’s Pantomime – have featured some of the most original worlds I’ve encountered in quite a while. There was only one moment in Nightingale that smacked of ‘young adult’ fiction and that was the love at first sight, which vexed me. A gradual development of mutual admiration would have been more credible and perhaps more interesting. Still, love at first sight was good enough for Shakespeare and it should be good enough for me.

With Pantomime still in mind as my only means of comparison, I also couldn’t help noticing that Across the Nightingale Floor presented very traditional gender roles for its two protagonists. I’m not necessarily complaining, because to some extent this is dictated by the world of medieval Japan, but I playfully wondered how things might have worked if we’d swapped the situations round. How would things have played out if Kaede had been the one taken on by the Otori and trained as an assassin, and Takeo was the aristocratic prisoner defined merely by his handsome face and his potential on the marriage market? But these are idle queries, and I grew more impressed by Kaede towards the end. Perhaps, left to her own devices, she will develop a swashbuckling streak.

Regardless of how it’s marketed, this is a fine book to read no matter what your age. I devoured it with great pleasure in a matter of hours. Hearn writes with the grace and care of a calligrapher, and the book is peppered with vignettes that look as if they’ve been lifted from a Japanese scroll. She also manages to be concise without sacrificing any of the drama or flavour, and the story has a cinematic verve.  It may only be 292 pages long, but the book offers richly-textured world-building and a gripping momentum that only increases in the final chapters. (I was intrigued, by the way, to read in Hearn’s afterword that ‘nightingale floors’ are actually real and examples can be found in Kyoto.)

I finished the book this morning on my commute and, as the train pulled into my station, began frantically gulping down words with my eyes in order to finish it before I reached the office. I knew I wouldn’t be able to focus on the day ahead until I had done so. Now that’s the sign of a good novel. I shall, very shortly, get my hands on the sequels.

I rarely include cover features unless we’re dealing with Robin Hobb’s novels, but there are so many beautiful designs for different editions of Across the Nightingale Floor that I couldn’t resist including a selection here.

Buy the book

4 thoughts on “Across the Nightingale Floor (2002): Lian Hearn

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Hello Bonsai, welcome to the blog and thank you so much for commenting!

      I think Hearn did a fair bit of research: there is an afterword detailing her investigations into the nightingale floors and so forth, and she’s been fascinated by Japan and its language for many years. But bear in mind this isn’t historical fiction. She’s not trying to place her story in a particular political context, so that gives her more freedom. The history gives the world its flavour rather than restricting it (like most Western-based fantasy).

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