With a complicated web of back-story set up and a return to familiar characters that we’ve seen develop, it goes without saying that Brilliance of the Moon should be the gripping climax of a trilogy that has thus far moved from strength to strength. The third and final instalment of the TALES OF THE OTORI series, the book has many loose ends to tie up, not to mention a certain prophecy that needs fulfilling. Across the Nightingale Floor and Grass for his Pillow were always going to prove tough acts to follow, and unfortunately Brilliance of the Moon doesn’t quite live up to its predecessors’ standards.
We start from where Grass for his Pillow left off: Takeo and Kaede have just been married in secret and it is now up to them to unite the Three Countries. Takeo is still keeping the prophecy he was told in the previous books on the sly: he must fight five battles, four to win and one to lose, and is destined to die at the hand of his own son. Also being kept under wraps is his secret illegitimate lovechild with his assassin, ex-teacher’s daughter, Yuki.
Takeo leaves Kaede at Maruyama (where they are reclaiming the lands that Kaede has rightfully inherited) to go to Oshima island, where he plans to try and take Hagi by sea — all part of the plan to gradually unite the Three Countries and restore peace to the land. After Takeo’s departure, Kaede rides to Shirakawa where she is captured by our old friend, the (really creepy) Lord Fujiwara.
This was where my first gripe with the novel started. Kaede, who had been gradually empowered over the course of the first two novels, suddenly reverts back to meek, helpless maiden. It is a complete reverse in characterisation, the purpose of which seems only to be to remove her from Takeo’s path for the duration of his exploits.
There was also a distinct lack on tension in this book, which had been the driving force of the trilogy until now. Perhaps part of this was that Takeo and Kaede were united and married at the end of book two (something which could’ve been postponed until the end of the final book). There was never any doubt that Takeo would achieve what he had set out to do, and the challenges that do arise are met without preamble and are soon overcome. The final showdown with the Tribe master in particular was a massive anticlimax.
The tone is much darker than previous instalments, with Takeo continuing to grapple with the opposing parts of his nature: his peaceful upbringing clashing with the bloody legacy of the assassins he’s inherited. Whilst his internal conflict is convincing, it’s also kind of annoying, and doesn’t make him a particularly engaging or endearing protagonist to follow.
It’s not all bad. What worked really well was the subtle interweaving of the outside world, of hints of the West (the pink-faced barbarians!), which was completely unexpected. Hearn has woven her feudal-style setting so seamlessly that one completely forgets the outside world still exists. Brilliance of the Moon is still a must-read for those who have followed the trilogy so far, but is perhaps a slightly anti-climactic finale — but with such a high standard of previous books, it’s hard to want to blame Hearn for it.
Brilliance of the Moon wraps up the main plot of the previous novels, Across the Nightingale Floor and Grass for His Pillow. There is a forth installment (The Harsh Cry of the Heron) that is set fifteen years after the conclusion of this book which deals with a couple of plot-threads that were left dangling here (namely, the prophesy that claims Takeo will die at the hands of his own son). And Heaven’s Net is Wide is a prequel, so for all intents and purposes, this is the grand finale of the story that has been gradually building up throughout the previous books, and Lian Hearn brings the semi-epic tale to a satisfactory and bittersweet conclusion.
Being the third novel, there is a huge amount of back-story and intrigue already set up, and so it seems pointless to summarize it here. Let’s just say that there’s no way you can understand this story without already having read the previous novels. Basically, our main character Otori Takeo is a young warrior with allegiances to three opposing factions in the Japanese-inspired world of the Three Countries. Attempting to negotiate his ties with all three of them (both within himself and in the world itself) makes up the crux of his character, as he is torn between the honorable Otori Clan (into which he was adopted), the pacifist Hidden people (who bear a resemblance to Christians) and the devious Tribe, a secretive and devious faction who instigate their near-supernatural abilities in the art of spy-craft and assassination. Told in first-person narrative, Takeo’s story is suspenseful and poignant, as the young man is called upon to make some very difficult decisions throughout the course of the tale. The saying that there can be no peace without war is especially apt here, as Takeo deals with a range of betrayals, alliances, intrigues, enmities and battles that threaten his attempts to secure peace. Several times I found myself asking: “What would I do in that situation?” Lian Hearn doesn’t hesitate to make her protagonist undertake some very dubious activities, which adds to the richness of the story itself.
In the final chapter of Grass for his Pillow, Takeo was wed to his beloved Shirakawa Kaede, something I felt was a surprise move on Hearn’s part (usually weddings are postpones till the end of a story). Unfortunately, I never felt that the romance between them was handled particularly well, but having a married couple as a story’s main protagonists is an interesting change. As in the previous books, Kaede’s chapters are told in third-person narrative, although she has a lesser part to play here. Hearn seems to have lost interest in her slightly, as Kaede’s development from a timid young girl into an independent and powerful woman is undercut in this installment when she becomes a prisoner of a malevolent lord — remaining there for most of the book’s length.
However, one cannot say the same thing about Takeo, who has fully embraced his role as a war-leader and all the responsibilities that come with it. Hearn captures the burden of leadership perfectly, as Takeo struggles to maintain power whilst placating those that answer to him, seeking out allegiances whilst knowing he can trust no one, kill those oppose him whilst suppressing his own distaste for violence. Hearn handles the action sequences and the atmosphere of war extremely well, and though we don’t fear for Takeo himself, be certain that all of his friends and comrades are up for grabs. Takeo has grown convincingly from boy to man throughout the course of the three books, capable of both compassionate and merciless actions, something that finally makes him a fully three-dimensional character (being rather distant in the previous books). He struggles, he doubts, he succeeds and fails, and although I would have liked a bit more commentary on Takeo’s internal thoughts (often I wasn’t sure whether many of the events were due to his own upbringing, or part of the Japanese culture itself — such as the many “honour suicides” that take place, something completely foreign to Western thinking).
Although the violence and randomness of war is captured almost-perfectly, I felt that the final confrontation with the Otori was rather abrupt and anti-climactic. Perhaps this was simply because it was building for so long, but it seemed to be over quickly, with very little effort on Takeo’s part. However, though I have not yet read the forth book The Harsh Cry of the Heron: The Last Tale of the Otori, this is certainly the best book of the trilogy, with action, suspense, intrigue, revenge and a good wrap-up to what has gone before.