Across the Nightingale Floor
By Lian Hearn
Riverhead Books, 2002.
I don't think I've been this excited about discovering a new fantasy since I first read Guy Gavriel Kay (who assisted Christopher Tolkien in compiling J.R.R. Tolkien's Silmarillion). And believe me, I was skeptical when I picked up Across the Nightingale Floor. There've been any number of fantasy novels set in "almost" Japan--Salmonson's Tomoe Gozen springs to mind--and historical novelizations based in the feudal era, à la Clavell's Shogun. As long as one is willing to suspend a lot of technical knowledge and cultural understanding, they're reasonable enough to while away the hours in an airplane. None that I have read, however, compares with this first volume of "The Tales of the Otori."
Lian Hearn has avoided the pitfalls of sacrificing precise historical accuracy for the sake of the story by setting Across the Nightingale Floor "in an imaginary country in a feudal period. Neither the setting nor the period is intended to correspond to any true historical period, though echoes of many Japanese customs and traditions will be found, and the landscape and seasons are those of Japan." Despite this caveat, the book is quite successfully evocative of Japan during the Warring States period; the language, names, societal structure, and fighting systems will be familiar to Koryu.com readers.
I'm not going to give you a plot summary so as not to spoil the many delights of revealed identities, intricate betrayals, passionate loyalties, political intrigue, and hidden powers. The fantasy element is not of the swords-and-sorcery variety, but, thus far in the trilogy, lies mostly in a group of people known as "The Tribe." Roughly (and I do mean roughly) analogous to historical and fictional ninja clans, members of The Tribe possess, to varying degrees, extra-normal powers. They do not just seem to move invisibly, some of them actually can disappear. Not merely good at eavesdropping, some Tribe members are able to hear whispers across vast distances. In short, they are powerful tools in the hands of warlords struggling for dominance--and this is the story two young people, one Tribe youth, Takeo, and a young woman held as a political pawn, Kaede, who are caught in the machinations of two vying warlords.
Hearn's lilting prose, interesting characters, and intertwined plots strike all the right chords. I enthusiastically recommend this book--it would make a great holiday gift!
Oh! And what is a "nightingale floor"? Uguisubari are wooden floors specifically designed to creak, or "chirp," at the slightest pressure, thus warning the inhabitants of any surreptitious approach. The most famous surviving floors are in Kyoto at Nijo Castle.
Read an excerpt from this book: "The Training Match."