Noble heroes, evil warlords, doomed lovers, magical powers, ambition, treachery, honor, sacrifice, and a young man with a destiny -- all set against the exotic backdrop of a Japan as we'd like to imagine it -- this is the world Lian Hearn has created in Across the Nightingale Floor.
First in a projected trilogy called Tales of the Otori, Across the Nightingale Floor introduces Tomasu, a boy of sixteen living in a small, quiet village with his beloved mother, step-father, and sisters. They are members of a religious sect called the Hidden. Members are pacifists. They are also persecuted. Tomasu returns to the village after an outing to find his family, his friends -- everyone he loves -- butchered by men of the Tohan Clan, led by Lord Iida Sadamu.
Tomasu is rescued by Otori Shigeru, a lord of the Otori, a rival clan that has lost land and lives to the Tohan. Shigeru takes Tomasu under his protection, giving him the name Takeo. Tomasu is dead, his life among the Hidden and their pacifistic teachings gone forever. Takeo settles into his new home wanting only to be left in peace.
Peace is not his fate.
He begins to develop strange talents: preternaturally acute hearing, a photographic memory, artistic ability. He learns that his real father was a member of the Tribe, a ninja-like clan of assassins. Not only that, but Shigeru went in search of Takeo, intending to raise him and train him to be the ultimate weapon against Iida: the one man who can cross Iida's nightingale floor, a floor of cunning beauty that sings with each step. It serves as Iida's alarm -- it sings to him if an assassin approaches while he sleeps. But the gossips say that Iida does not need his nightingale floor. He has ruined so many lives and made so many enemies that he can no longer sleep at night.
Shigeru brings in Kenji, a master of the Tribe, to teach Takeo, but the Tribe wants to claim Takeo for themselves and his loyalties are split again. As he is trained in the ways of death Takeo is faced with a new question: Is he a peaceful man being taught to kill, or a killer with a veneer of compassion? How can he reconcile the two? Takeo is himself a nightingale floor, a good heart twisted to an ugly purpose.
Hearn plays with the idea of true self versus role over and over again. Takeo may not know precisely who or what he is, but he is certainly not what he seems. He has been maneuvered into a role that conflicts with his true nature -- or does it? He is still young, still maturing, and as he observes the people he loves and respects the most -- Shigeru; Kenji; the Lady Maruyama, Shigeru's lover, who is separated from him by politics and propriety -- he realizes that none of them are truly what they seem. All have been forced into roles that conflict with their true natures by honor, by peril, by love, by a desire for vengeance. And all cope with their divided natures with varying degrees of success, trying to find ways to remain true to themselves while conforming to the strictures of the roles Fate has forced upon them. Life is compromise; or rather, each life is a succession of compromises, and only Takeo can decide what he must do to be able to sleep in peace.
If this sounds more introspective than your average fantasy, it is. Much of the book is told from Takeo's point of view as he mourns his dead family, grows into his new one, adjusts to his strange abilities, and ponders his place in the world. There are as many quiet moments in this book as there are fights, and Takeo spends as much time admiring the beauty of his new home as he does admiring the beauty of a well-executed sword cut.
This emphasis on Takeo's divided nature offers the opportunity for rich characterization, but it also leads to the greatest flaw in Across the Nightingale Floor. Takeo is a pawn throughout. He is at the center of the dreams and desires of all the major characters, but their conflicts, not his own, control his actions. Much of the climactic action takes place offstage and by the end of the book Takeo is still divided, not having been given the chance to resolve his own story. This may have been necessary for the sake of Books Two and Three in Tales of the Otori, but it makes for a dissatisfying resolution -- if resolution it can be called -- and an especially jarring one, given Takeo's abilities.
Another problem is that the characters of Iida and his henchmen are not as carefully developed as Hearn's protagonists. Iida comes across as a cartoon bully and almost a minor character. Great heros need great villains to show them in their best light, and Iida does not rise (or rather, sink) to the challenge. True, it is not Iida himself but how Takeo, Shigeru, and the men and women around them cope with Iida that is the real source of tension, but a book with ninjas and samurai and flashing swords needs to deliver on the action, as well.
Still, Takeo and his loved ones are sympathetic characters, compassionately drawn, the setting is clear and vivid, and the writing often has a spare beauty all its own. If you can wait until the next book for Takeo to take charge of his life, Across the Nightingale Floor may be for you.
Copyright © 2003 Lori Ann White
Lori Ann White is a writer from the SF Bay area whose work has appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and Best of the Rest 3: The Best Unknown Sceince Fiction and Fantasy of 2001. She is as much in love with China as Lian Hearn is with Japan and hopes to do as good a job evoking it in the novel she's now working on. You can find out more at her website.