Planned trilogies are sometimes difficult to judge without reading the whole thing. How can someone judge a book that's just the first part of a larger work? Can it be criticized for not standing on its own merits when it's just the first third (or fourth, or eighth, or tenth, or whatever) of a larger story? After all, reading just the exposition chapters of a novel and then putting it down and saying "This is a bad book" is really poor form and something to be discouraged. But, at the same time, if you're going to write novels, you should strive to write complete ones, even if you have grand designs for the world at large. Stephen R. Donaldson, for example, wrote absolutely execrable fantasy novels in groups of three, but I could pick up any one of those books and read its absolutely atrocious contents without necessarily needing to go in order.
So I suppose my criteria for this book would be that it is able to stand on its own, but also judging it as the introduction to a greater series of works, works that I might possibly want to read.
And...as far as that goes, it isn't a bad book?
It's not a good book, and there are some serious issues with structural senses and the way characters are treated, but I would be lying if I said there weren't some cool scenes in there. In fact, I would love for this to be filmed or animated and for it to play out onscreen. It reads like it was meant to be adapted into something or to be played out in a visual medium. And while that is wonderful for screenplays and movies and the like, when applied to a medium like books, it...doesn't go nearly as well.
That isn't to say it isn't an interesting book. But, well...
More, as always, below.
"It is good to come home...but just as the river is always at the door, the world is always outside. And it is in the world that we have to live."
- Shigeru Otori
Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn is the story of Takeo, the ward of Lord Shigeru Otori. Takeo is a member of a secret civilization called The Hidden living in the wilds of his country. The Hidden are a Christian analogue that worship a single god whose rules abhor killing. One day, when Takeo is out picking mushrooms, the ruthless Tohan attack the village. The Tohan, under the control of the cruel Lord Iida Sadamu, mean to exterminate or drive the Hidden out by force, capturing the inhabitants and burning the village to the ground. In the ensuing chaos, Takeo accidentally unhorses Lord Iida himself and promptly runs from the Lord's retainers, only to be caught by Lord Otori. Otori rescues him from the retainers and brings him back to his castle, where the young Takeo is educated and taken in as part of his family.
But there are some odd quirks to Takeo, things he himself isn't aware of. Things like his ability to hear absolutely everyone in a house. Or the way he dispatched one of the top assassins in the country by accident after hearing him coming in the middle of the night. And then, suddenly a merchant who can project himself into two places at once shows up at the Otori household with a specific interest in Lord Otori's young ward...
And then things get weird.
It turns out that a secret group known as The Tribe, a group able to put people to sleep at a glance and use their supernatural talents to rule from behind the scenes, far from the reach of the Three Countries or the Tohan Empire, has taken an interest in Takeo. Takeo's father was once a member of the Tribe, and an incredibly strong and accomplished one at that. Slowly, Kenji, the merchant and an ally of Lord Otori, trains Takeo to become more of an assassin, to shed his rough upbringing as a Hidden and take up the ways of his father. There is a darker, more ulterior purpose to Otori and Kenji's training, one that will lead Takeo to the large black-walled fortress of Iida Sadamu, and his infamous Nightingale Floor. If, of course, the Tribe doesn't have other plans for him, first...
So the obvious place to start would be the action. The book, when it is active, when it is moving, is an immensely enjoyable read. It feels like it's going places. It feels like all the questions have answers. It feels like all the characters belong in the plot. And Hearn can write action like nobody else. It's fast, it's furious, and it's brilliant to read, whether it's a quick and brutal knife fight or an extended sequence of a rescue mission. There's nothing quite like Hearn when she's on. My favorite sequence has to be an extended fight with poles that ends in a sort of stalemate, where both people drop their poles to the ground. It's a training sequence, but imbued with such meaning and ability and emotion that it transcends that, becomes something more. Both people are trained fighters, but it's how they fight that makes it memorable. Another favorite is the tense fight with Shintaro, a fight that doesn't last very long, but uses the most of its space. Hearn's action is fluid, and the pacing in these sections is excellent.
Unfortunately, the book has a serious pacing issue that keeps it from being as fun as it could be. Halfway through the book, around the time characters start seriously getting introduced, When everyone ends up at Hagi, the ancestral home of the Otori clan, things...just...stop. And don't really go anywhere. Takeo still trains, there's romance, there's a little angst, there's people generally being people, and it feels like a samurai film directed by late-stage Robert Altman. Which would be wonderful in any other book than a political-fantasy-thriller taking place in fantasy Not-Japan. When it finally clears and the wheels of the plot start moving again away from the exposition, they don't recover enough to not cast a pall over the rest of the book. This sequence also introduces a lot of extraneous characters that, overall, have very little to do with the plot. A love interest of Shigeru's barely appears, a few Tribe members and training montages occur, and there's some forced chemistry between Takeo and the betrothed of Shigeru Otori, Kaede Shirakawa.
Kaede is another major issue with the book. You will notice in the plot summary that it doesn't say much about Kaede. That's because in Across the Nightingale Floor, she is barely an afterthought. I have heard that she gets much better and actually gains quite a bit of agency, But in this book, despite actually being given numerous chances to affect the plot, and having several scenes where she accomplishes great things (such as the scene where she manages to turn the tables on one of the villains), she seems to be a passive observer. Given a POV and chapters of her own just to add her point of view and show the role of women in Feudal Japanese society, but a passive observer. Which...could be important on its own, but in the course of a book like this, it stops things dead. Also, because she doesn't use what little agency she has, there's not much point to her being in the book in general. She could easily be lifted out or made a secondary character, but instead we are left with her killing the pacing dead to set up the next two books where she's more important. While it is true she kills two major villains, it isn't really enough to keep her from being more of an expositionary conveyance in someone else's story.
And finally, there's the ending. The rushed, rushed ending. Hearn seems to realize that perhaps things are coming a little too easily to the heroes, and in retaliation has one faction pull a move that makes everything harder, allowing Kaede for a single moment of heroism before the book's close. It's not a surprising plot move, the sudden betrayal and removal of characters from the plot, it's just...arbitrary. There was a plot that could happen here, but unfortunately, the plot that could happen and the plot that actually happened are two disparate elements, two alternate futures from which we got a single bad one. It ties up everything loosely to set up the next book, and then stops short. At the very least, if Hearn was going to leave this mostly to exposition and the meanderings of Kaede Shirakawa, this should be the exciting lead-in to the next book. Unfortunately, none of those things are true in the slightest.
So in the end, I can't recommend this book. Give it a pass. It may improve with the sequels, but that has absolutely no bearing on me. I'm hanging up on Lian Hearn, and I'd encourage the rest of you to do the same. The chemistry between characters is forced, the pacing is shot, and overall, this does a great disservice to all the things the author seemed to be trying to do with it. I hope Lian Hearn, whoever their pseudonym really is, gets more enjoyment out of writing under their own name, because with any luck, the Tales of the Otori series will be lost to the mists of time.
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AND MANY OTHERS