The Tales of the Otori: Book III
Spurred on by the desire to find out what happens, and by James’s comment on the last Otori post, I moved on to Brilliance of the Moon: the third and final instalment in Hearn’s series. To some extent it lived up to my expectations, as Takeo is confronted with the five prophesied battles that will shape his future (‘four to win and one to lose‘). The plot picked up its heels as we approached the conclusion; though the actual battle scenes felt rushed and anaemic after all the build-up. And that wasn’t the only problem. The characterisation still had issues and I was left feeling, somehow, unsatisfied. In short, this has been an enjoyable but ultimately flawed series, rich in concept but not always completely successful in execution.
Please note, of course, that this post will include spoilers for both previous books. We rejoin Takeo and Kaede where we left them, at the temple of Terayama where they have just been joined in marriage. A daunting prospect now confronts them: to secure Kaede’s inheritance in the lands of the Maruyama; to uphold Takeo’s claim to the Otori lands against his two usurping uncles; to make peace with the slighted warlord Arai; and to evade the vindictive assassins of the Tribe. Fortunately the Otori name can do much, and Takeo benefits from being the designated heir of his much-loved adoptive father Shigeru. With an army at his back, his beloved wife at his side, and his trusted friend Makoto never far away, he sets out to make his name on history.
In the last book, I grumbled that Takeo spent most of his time wandering around with no clear sense of purpose. That has changed here. With his decision to follow his Otori heritage, Takeo must become a careful ruler, a kind landlord and a charismatic leader of men. He must overcome his fair share of challenges, most importantly the suspicion that his abilities arouse in others. And he must learn to be ruthless. There are scenes which show Hearn isn’t afraid to give her hero a touch of darkness: Takeo is a creature of his age, after all, believing that peace can sometimes only be achieved through bloodshed. He makes his point in a number of brutal scenes. Now, on paper, this should be a robust comeback. Where I cavil slightly is in the ease with which Takeo fits into his new role. I hinted at this last time, and James picked up on it in that helpful comment. Takeo finds everything remarkably easy. His Tribe skills are so advanced that we never believe there is a real threat to him from that quarter. And, as this novel relates, he manages to pick up the gist of ruling and leading within a very short time.
This is my problem. Takeo’s achievements would be admirable in a seasoned adult commander, blending politic bloodshed with perfectly-timed battle strategy. I find it exceedingly difficult to credit that a teenager with no real experience of warfare would be able to pull this off so smoothly. Indeed, both Kaede and Takeo are remarkably accomplished, resolute and mature for a couple in their teens. I found it increasingly difficult to accept that Takeo achieves all that he does simply through native wit and the exercise of a few choice Tribe skills. Perhaps that’s why we need a Prophecy to explain his remarkable luck: Destiny is on his side. Meanwhile, Kaede’s story is put on the back burner in this volume. Having proven her strength of character in the last book, she spends most of this one in the hands of her former ally Fujiwara, whose hopes to marry her have been dashed by her abrupt wedding to Takeo. When loose ends are tied up – and I am trying to avoid too many spoilers – it is done quickly and superficially. The battles are almost apologetic, and are neatly sorted out within a few lines. Perhaps I’ve just been reading too many rampaging Anglo-Saxon novels recently, but I found myself yearning for a proper skirmish with a real sense of the outcome being at stake.
And the emotional situation hasn’t got much better. I had a genuine shock about halfway through this book when Takeo makes a throwaway comment about the time he slept with Makoto. What the…? Rereading the end of the first book, I realised that a coy few lines – which I read as Makoto offering a shoulder to cry on and a friendly hug – actually meant something else entirely. As I’m usually quick off the mark in noticing (or inventing) characters’ yearning for one another, you can see that this scene must have been pretty darn vague. This made Takeo’s detached attitude to Makoto even more unbelievable, although it did make sense of Makoto’s confession in Grass for his Pillow, which at the time seemed to come out of the blue. Yet, in this final book, I didn’t get the feeling that they were friends, let alone sometime lovers: whenever I saw them together, it seemed that Takeo was feeling angry or frustrated at Makoto for not having faith in his abilities. Indeed, it seemed to be a very one-sided kind of friendship. Funnily enough, this series has become more ‘young adult’ in its feel as it has progressed. I feel that I’m expected to cheer on the plucky teenage protagonists, even though in the real world I don’t think they’d have lasted all that long.
Ah dear; I think I’ve come across as being more critical than I intended to be of this final volume, but the characters feel somehow unconvincing despite the excitement of the storyline. It is, to put it frankly, a bit of a puzzle. I do plan to read the prequel, as I’d like to find out more about Shigeru (whom I always found interesting), and I have some of Lian Hearn’s new series waiting to be read, so I’m certainly not giving up on her. I just don’t feel that the Tales of the Otori has made a lasting impact on me. Perhaps I would feel differently if I were to read it in a different mood or at a different time in my life but, at the moment, I find that it raises more questions than it answers.
Last in this series – Grass for his Pillow