Across the Nightingale Floor
by Lian Hearn
Riverhead Books, 2003 , ISBN 1-57322-332-8
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
This is Book One of Tales of the Otori--the start of at least a trilogy. It's set in a fantasized mediaeval Japan, not overly constrained by anything like real history. Takeo is, through his mother and stepfather, a member of an outlawed religious sect called the Hidden, who strongly resemble a somewhat idealized early Christianity. Through his dead father, he's a member of the Tribe, a network of spies and assassins with supernatural gifts--the rarest and most prized of which Takeo has inherited. Takeo's father quit the Tribe and married Takeo's mother against the Tribe's orders. This is not permitted, any more than quitting the Mafia is permitted, but Takeo's father died without revealing the location of his wife and son. Also through his father, Takeo is heir to the Otori clan, which is somewhat wealthy and powerful, but used to be much more so, having lost a major power struggle around the time Takeo's father died.
Takeo's entire village of peaceful, harmless Hidden is massacred by one of the enemies Takeo had no idea he had, while Takeo is out wandering in the hills.
This seem like incredibly unpromising material. It seems even less promising when one learns that "Lian Hearn" is the pseudonym of a British-Australian children's author who has become infatuated with Japan. In fact, though, it's delightful. Takeo is a real kid, reacting normally to trauma, the repeated changes in his circumstances, and the discovery of his varied talents--including the temptation to use them unwisely, for an adolescent's idea of immediate personal advantage. Even his extremely complicated courtship of Kaede, a girl almost as improbably well-connected and unfairly disadvantaged as Takeo himself, works, and adds to the texture of the story rather than detracting. There are cartoon characters here, but they're peripheral ones, not the crucial ones, and this first third of the story is very good.