fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAcross The Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn epic fantasy book reviewsAcross The Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn

The tagline stamped across the cover of Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor is ‘One boy. One journey. One hidden destiny.’ Not only is this toe-curlingly clichéd, but it’s also pretty deceptive. It’s too reductive, too suggestive of the bog standard hero’s journey every fantasy fan has seen a million times. The book’s plot is complicated and surprising; its backdrop of a political feudal system riveting; the delicate Japanese-style landscape and customs are intricate. Across the Nightingale Floor, the first book in Lian Hearn’s TALES OF THE OTORI, is so much more than one boy, one journey, one hidden destiny. It’s fantasy at its finest and characters at their richest.

The story is introduced by Tomasu, our rather serious protagonist, who narrates the sacking of his village. He manages to piss off Lord Iida, a big bad warlord and leader of the Tohan tribe, by throwing him off his horse. Tomasu runs for his life, leaving his murdered family and his smouldering home behind him. As the Tohan soldiers are almost upon him, he runs into a mysterious man in the forest who saves his life: one Otori Shigeru, a lord of the Otori, a rival tribe of the Tohan. Shigeru saves Tomasu’s life (maiming a Tohan soldier in the process — a move that will come back to haunt him later in the novel). Tomasu sheds his old name and identity, and Takeo is born.

Enter a switch in perspective in the form of Kaede, a beautiful young girl who has spent half of her live as a prisoner in a Tohan household. In a political move, she is betrothed to be wed to Lord Otori Shigeru, and we begin to see how the protagonist’s lives will cross. Well, cross being an understatement here. They become positively tangled, for taking Kaede to meet her betrothed is Lady Maruyama, a beautiful and powerful woman who Lord Iida (remember, our tyrant war lord) wants to marry. But Lady Maruyama is secretly in love with Otori Shigeru, the very man that she is delivering Kaede to. On top of that, Kaede falls in love with our very own Takeo, now the adopted son of Otori Shigeru, the man she is engaged to. And if you thought the character’s love lives were messy, it doesn’t even begin to touch on the complicated Japanese-style feudal system of dirty politics, awry allegiances and more double standards than you can shake a stick at.

It also becomes clear that Takeo is perhaps more special than was originally let on. Was it just coincidence that Lord Otori Shigeru saved him in the forest, moments from his murder? Takeo begins to discover he has unique talents: supernatural hearing and an acute artistic ability among others. It transpires that his father was actually a member of the Tribe, a clan of assassins. Takeo, brought up in a village whose values promote peace and tranquillity, is torn between two opposing parts of his identity: the blood-thirsty assassin and the pacifist.

A host of other characters flesh out an already absorbing cast. There is Shizuka, Kaede’s seemingly annoying maid whose giggling and flirting is generally insufferable until we find out who she really is. There is the ambiguous Kenji, assassin and teacher of Takeo, whose questionable motives have the reader second-guessing him until the very end of the novel.

Although Hearn doesn’t ever explicitly mention Japan, the names, places, feudal system and cultural references all heavily insinuate the Japanese roots of her story. I rather like the beauty of leaving it to the reader’s imagination though. Hearn’s world is so masterfully created, so intricately structured, that we don’t need historical signposts.

One criticism that has been made of the book is that Iida, our main villain, the Big Bad, has not been fleshed out enough as a character, and to an extent I would agree with this. He is slightly cartoonish in his pure evildom, and amongst a cast of such enthralling characters this does become pretty glaringly obvious.

Across the Nightingale Floor transcends its YA label. This is a fantasy so captivating that it will engross young and old alike.

Editor’s Note: In the UK, where Rachael lives, the TALES OF THE OTORI is marketed as YA. It is marketed to adults in the US.

~Rachael McKenzie

book review: Across the Nightingale Floor Lian Hearn Tales of the OtoriAcross the Nightingale Floor is a wonderful fantasy novel set in an imaginative (as opposed to historical) feudal Japan. Its setting, sparse language, quick pace, relatively slim length, and lack of cookie-cutter fantasy races (dwarves, dragons, horse people, etc.) set it apart from much of the genre.

Young Takeo, one of two main characters, lives with his family, sans father, in a quiet village. They are all “Hidden,” members of a persecuted early Christianity and the book starts out at a full dark pace as the village is quickly overrun by a local warlord Iida, with Takeo the only survivor. Rescued seemingly through random luck by Otori Shigeru, another warlord who holds Iida his enemy, Takeo follows Shigeru to his far-off home where he becomes his ward and is educated in the way of the upper class and the warrior. It also becomes clear as he ages that he has somehow inherited some of the skills of the Tribe, a secret group of assassins who can go invisible for short periods of time, put people to sleep, hear sounds from far off, and so on. As his unknown past becomes unraveled, Takeo becomes increasingly embroiled in the area’s current political and social upheavals and finds himself conflicted within as well, torn by the obligations of family, religion, duty, class, and love to name just a few.

Across the Nightingale Floor shifts between Takeo and Kaede, the other main character — a young beautiful girl held hostage in Iida’s castle. Kaede resists being used as a pawn in the world of men and must fight her own battles (sometimes literally). Eventually, as one expects, Takeo and Kaede’s paths merge and a love story develops.

The story is fast-paced and the language sparse, making for a quick read. The language is beautiful in many places and its style and tone are perfect for the setting. The minimal style isn’t quite so positive at times with regard to plot, as sometimes things skim by a bit too quickly, such as Takeo’s training which turns him seemingly overnight (a slight exaggeration) into an amazingly effective assassin. And sometimes the world creation seems a bit thin. Despite the book’s brevity, the characterization is mostly well-done — the two main characters have a sense of fullness to them and the side characters, if anything, are even better.

The style, language, setting, plot, and characters are all above average and combine to create an excellent first book in the series. The only complaint is that it is by far the best book in the series. Luckily, it doesn’t rely on a cliffhanger ending so one can read it on its own with a sense of resolution. Strongly recommended, with fair warning that books two and three suffer greatly in comparison, being nowhere near as interesting, slower paced, a bit repetitive, and overall lacking the spark of the first.

~Bill Capossere

Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn epic fantasy book reviewsLian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor is one of those books that most adults reading YA want to like: the prose is good, the imagery lush, the themes serious and involving. It’s the kind of story we all like to imagine teenagers are actually reading, whenever they’re not gorging themselves on fatty comfort foods like the TWILIGHT series and its horde of imitators. My trouble with this novel, though, is not that it isn’t sufficiently adult and meaningful — it’s that it’s just…odd.

Now “odd” isn’t the most technical of terms, admittedly, so I’ll try to explain myself in more detail. Across the Nightingale Floor is about Tomasu (later known as Takeo), a young man whose pastoral life as a member of a peaceful tribe comes to a dramatic finish as his village is slaughtered by a cruel warlord and he is rescued by a charismatic young nobleman called Otori Shigeru. Might Lord Otori happen to be the political nemesis of the brutal warlord who slaughtered Tomasu’s tribe? He most certainly is. Might he desire Tomasu’s help in bumping off said brutal warlord with extreme prejudice? He might, he might! So, anyway, with our Hero’s Journey graven in granite, we move comfortably through the traditional elements as they come: the beautiful girl for whom Tomasu feels immediate, wild passion (and she for him, fortunately), the training in the arts of death, the mysterious heritage passed on to him from his late father…all leading up to the final confrontation with both his identity as a man and the villain who set him on the path to self-discovery.

It all sounds fairly thrilling, and to a certain extent it is, but that often seems largely in spite of Hearn’s efforts rather than a consequence of them. The pacing is all over the place, and the suspense — for the most part — just isn’t there. For example, Tomasu has magical super powers. His blood gives him the abilities of some kind of uber-ninja, and that’s pretty fun stuff. It’s quite exciting when his ninja instructor shows up to perform his supernatural ninjutsu before Tomasu’s wondering eyes and tell him that soon he too will be able to use such amazing skills.

So Tomasu learns to use all of those amazing skills. It takes him about a paragraph. No, seriously, that’s it. Hearn has so little energy to spare for the fairly massive bombshell she herself just dropped on the narrative that by the end, she was still matter-of-factly pulling out new powers for Tomasu. The love affair follows the same unfortunate course, giving the impression that a 1980’s movie-montage of a romance would have given us more content. Our leading lady, one Kaede, is apparently a very attractive young woman who is terrified of getting married (and of men in general). Then one day she ends up in close proximity to Tomasu, and is stricken by the unexpected revelation that men can be — at some point in their lives — young and handsome. So stricken, in fact, that yep, she’s in love. Somehow or other. Tomasu just kind of goes along with this, because why not? One can almost hear Hearn slapping the dust off her hands after she scrawls a big check mark next to “Romance Subplot.”

These elements are all the more disappointing given that they’re so often paired with truly fantastic imagery and use of language. Tomasu/Takeo is an interesting character, and his observations on the world around him often have a real poetry to them. It’s a very pretty book in a number of different ways, and so much of it works! The storyline, though, and the building blocks thereof, really don’t work as they should, and after a time begin to reflect on the characters. Tomasu’s casual acceptance of his new powers and near-complete lack of a teenager’s usual romantic anxieties makes him seem oddly distant and alien, a pretty but very cold picture of something far outside the viewer’s frame of reference.

So, summing up, the book deserves a passing grade on the basis of its imagery and prose, but it would have benefited from more work on the story and pacing. Hopefully, the next novels in the TALES OF THE OTORI series will begin to incline more in that direction.

~Tim Scheidler

Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn epic fantasy book reviewsTomasu is a young man of the Hidden People, who loves nothing more than to take solitary walks in the mountains. This is until the day he returns to the village and discovers the body of his murdered stepfather and other community members. They are victims of a merciless massacre by the Tohan Clan and their warlord Iida Sadamu, and when Tomasu flees into the forests he is rescued from pursuers by Otori Shigeru, a lord of the Otori Clan that opposes the rule of the Tohan. Taking him under his wing, Shigeru renames the young man “Takeo”, and together the two return to his home in the city of Hagi. But what does Shigeru really want from Takeo? Was their meeting and Takeo’s rescue an accident? As previously dormant abilities in Takeo gradually emerge (such as keen hearing, invisibility and supernatural agility), he begins to suspect that Shigeru is grooming him for a secret mission. When he hears about Iida’s “nightingale floor” — a floor specially rigged to make noise when trod upon, he begins to realize where his training is leading him…

Takeo’s chapters are told in first-person narrative, but they are alternated with third-person narration that recounts the activities of Shirakawa Kaede, a young woman who has lived most of her life as a hostage in a hostile fief. After she attacks a soldier who attempts to molest her, the family suddenly takes notice of her beauty and organize an arranged marriage for her. Naturally, these two lives are soon to be intertwined — and from there flows a story of intrigue, betrayals, alliances, assassinations, treachery and revenge — well paced and packed full of good ideas and vivid descriptions. Particularly interesting is the way Takeo is torn between opposing clans and tribes: the Hidden (his mother’s people who raised him) who were pacifists, the Tribe (his father’s people) who are hired assassins from who he inherits his particular talents, and the Otori Clan into which he’s adopted by Shigeru. Trying to figure out exactly where he belongs is the main crux of Takeo’s character, and his divided loyalties are played out reasonably well throughout the text.

However, on the whole Across the Nightingale Floor is a good example of how a very good story is told in the wrong way. Often Lian Hearn has characters with secret identities and hidden motives, but she gives them away too soon and without any sense of suspense or revelation (for an early example, there is the character of Shizuka: she’s introduced as a flirty, flighty servant girl, though we are quickly told that she’s a highly skilled agent for the Tribe. Instead of building our suspicions with clues and foreshadowing, Hearn gives the game away too quickly, not giving us the opportunity of being impressed with an established and carefully constructed plot-twist). There are many other situations when I was frustrated with Hearn’s handling of her own story: she has good material here, but constantly fails to present it in a compelling way.

As well as this, I felt that the “love story” between Takeo and Kaede is mishandled. Here’s a passage from the chapter in which Kaede first becomes aware of Takeo (and keep in mind that she hates and fears all males): “She had been dreaming vividly, but the moment she opened her eyes the dream vanished, leaving her only with the lucid knowledge that what she felt was love. She was astonished, then elated, then dismayed. At first she thought she would die if she saw him, then that she would die if she didn’t.” At this stage, Kaede hasn’t even spoken to Takeo — simply seen him through a window. A love affair based on “love at first sight” (or alternatively, lust) in which there is very little interaction or conversation between the couple cannot help but be void of all emotion or resonance.

Due to these twin problems (the mishandling of the plot and the lack of emotional resonance in the characters) make this a novel full of potential, but frustratingly lacking in form. Drawing inspiration from Japanese culture, Hearn creates a world that is refreshingly different from the typical medieval-fantasy world, though in saying that, there is surprisingly little in the way of fantasy elements throughout the course of the story, with the minor exception of the paranormal gifts of the Tribe. How accurate it all is, I’ll leave to someone more knowledgeable on the subject to comment on, but there is plenty of fascinating world-building at work throughout the story (okay, I’ll admit I’ve been watching a lot of Avatar The Last Airbender lately, and it reminded me of that!)

Although there are some serious discrepancies in the writing, I’ve invested myself in these characters and their situation, so I’ll be continuing the journey in Grass for His Pillow, the next installment.

~Rebecca Fisher

Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn epic fantasy book reviewsAcross the Nightingale Floor has a beautiful, concise writing style, good characterization, fast pace, and interesting plot. It’s main weakness is the ridiculousness of the love-at-first-sight. It makes the characters seem a bit shallow.

Warning about the audiobook: I listened to this book on CD. There are two readers — a man for the voice of Takeo, and a woman for the voice of Kaede. The man is an excellent reader with a lovely voice (he’s got the oriental speech sounds just right). I think his reading made me sympathize with Takeo more than I would have if I had read the book in print format. But the female reader was terrible — she speaks slowly and too distinctly, as if she’s reading to kindergartners. This was extremely annoying! Fortunately, most of the book is written with Takeo’s narration, so her reading didn’t ruin it for me. Also, I think, as an American reader, I might have benefited from actually seeing the oriental names, rather than only hearing them. It took me a while to distinguish between some of the names because they were all unfamiliar to me and they sounded too similar at first. If you’re planning to read this series, read it in print, not by audio.

~Kat Hooper

Published in 2002. In his black-walled fortress at Inuyama, the warlord Iida Sadamu surveys his famous nightingale floor. Constructed with exquisite skill, it sings at the tread of each human foot. No assassin can cross it unheard.The youth Takeo has been brought up in a remote mountain village among the Hidden, a reclusive and spiritual people who have taught him only the ways of peace. But unbeknownst to him, his father was a celebrated assassin and a member of the Tribe, an ancient network of families with extraordinary, preternatural skills. When Takeo’s village is pillaged, he is rescued and adopted by the mysterious Lord Otori Shigeru. Under the tutelage of Shigeru, he learns that he too possesses the skills of the Tribe. And, with this knowledge, he embarks on a journey that will lead him across the famed nightingale floor—and to his own unimaginable destiny…

Lian Hearn Tales of the Otori 1. Across the Nightingale Floor 2. Grass for his Pillow 3. Brilliance of the Moon 4. The Harsh Cry of the Heron 5. Heaven's Net is Wide Lian Hearn Tales of the Otori 1. Across the Nightingale Floor 2. Grass for his Pillow 3. Brilliance of the Moon 4. The Harsh Cry of the Heron 5. Heaven's Net is Wide Lian Hearn Tales of the Otori 1. Across the Nightingale Floor 2. Grass for his Pillow 3. Brilliance of the Moon 4. The Harsh Cry of the Heron 5. Heaven's Net is Wide Lian Hearn Tales of the Otori 1. Across the Nightingale Floor 2. Grass for his Pillow 3. Brilliance of the Moon 4. The Harsh Cry of the Heron 5. Heaven's Net is Wide Lian Hearn Tales of the Otori 1. Across the Nightingale Floor 2. Grass for his Pillow 3. Brilliance of the Moon 4. The Harsh Cry of the Heron 5. Heaven's Net is Wide


  • Ray McKenzie

    RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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  • Tim Scheidler

    TIM SCHEIDLER, who's been with us since June 2011, holds a Master's Degree in Popular Literature from Trinity College Dublin. Tim enjoys many authors, but particularly loves J.R.R. Tolkien, Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke. When he’s not reading, Tim enjoys traveling, playing music, writing in any shape or form, and pretending he's an athlete.

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  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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