We saw myth, legend, folklore and tradition of feudal Japan seamlessly woven in Across the Nightingale Floor, and Grass for His Pillow offers equal richness and storytelling depth. In what marks the second book in the trilogy, Lian Hearn returns to the stories of Takeo and Kaede as they choose their alliances amidst increasing unrest between the clans.
Grass for His Pillow opens with Shirakawa Kaede lying in the temple; she is in the deep sleep Takeo put her in when we last saw her. Upon waking and discovering the departure of Takeo, she resolves to return to her father’s household and to inherit the lands that Lady Maruyama pledged to her before she died at the end of the last book. She feels increasingly sick on her journey and it is not long before Shizuka asks Kaede if she could be pregnant. She could never admit to bearing Takeo’s unborn child, so Shizuka suggests that Kaede lies and pretend to have married Lord Otori Shigeru before he was killed.
Takeo finds himself in an equally precarious position. Having pledged his life to the Tribe, he must train as one of them and hone his supernatural skills of invisibility and acute hearing. This is all done under the tutelage of the infuriating Akio, who bears a grudge against Takeo and is none too happy about the interest of his fellow tribe member, Yuki (Akio’s betrothed), in him. It is nail biting to watch Yuki’s advances on Takeo, and you can’t help but find yourself screaming at the fool to remember Kaede (who, coincidentally, never stops pining after the love of her life).
As Takeo’s advances to unheard of skill, he finds himself questioning the ways of the Tribe, their assassinations and brutal killings. They show no remorse or pity, which is utterly at odds with Takeo’s upbringing: brought up as a member of the Hidden, he has been taught to live a life of harmony and peace. Yet there is another aspect of Takeo: he was adopted as one of the Otori, and had made a solemn oath to avenge the death of Otori Shigeru. With these three parts of his personality tearing him in different directions, Takeo must make one of the most important decisions of his life. Will he let the Tribe control him as one of their deadliest assassins, or will he avenge his adopted father’s death and seek the one he loves?
Epic as Takeo’s decision may be, this book really is all about Kaede and her gripping transformation from girl to womanhood. It is such a pleasure to watch her develop from the lost, scared girl we first met to the strong woman she becomes upon revisiting her father’s household. To her dismay, her mother died before she got to see her, and her father has descended into a kind of madness. Her father had been a supporter of Iida, who was (unfortunately for him) defeated by Arai. Kaede’s father now lives in shame, and constantly talks about the warrior’s suicide he should have committed.
Kaede is quick to take control of the household. She demands her father teaches her ‘like a son,’ and she soon picks up the skills of reading, writing, accountancy and war tactics that no other woman would’ve dreamed of. Thrown into the mix is the delightful new character of Lord Fujiwara, powerful neighbour of Kaede, a man as equally fascinating as he is repulsive. He becomes obsessed with Kaede and wants to possess her as one of the magnificent secret objects he hoards in his household. Kaede is quick to see a powerful ally in Lord Fujiwara and must strike a fine balance between using his help whilst offering her secrets to him. It provides the perfect foil to Takeo’s own dalliances with the crafty Yuki.
Unlike many middle-books in a trilogy, Grass for His Pillow is no book to be overlooked, no stepping-stone to the climactic final instalment. It is a more captivating read than Across the Nightingale Floor: it’s impossible not to get swept up by the characters’ plights as they become more developed and fleshed out. If the series continues going from strength to strength, the final instalment of the trilogy is going to be a delight.
This is the typical middle novel in any trilogy, which is free from the back-story and introductions of the first novel, but leaves all resolution for the final installment. As such,Grass for his Pillow is full of setup with little payoff, though it builds up plenty of suspense and intrigue. Like chess pieces on a board, Lian Hearn carefully arranges her characters and their motivations throughout the story, creating a tangled web of alliances, friendships, rivalries, enemies and every other kind of human relationship you can think of that stretches across the Japanese-inspired created world of the Three Countries. Keeping track of all these people and their intrigues is hard work, but Hearn shows a deft hand in juggling all her story components without getting bogged down in exposition. In fact, I was impressed by the swift pacing in Grass for his Pillow, which was a step up from Across the Nightingale Floor.
After the death of his adopted father Otori Shigeru, Takeo has left the Clan and fulfilled his promise to his father’s people, the Tribe, by submitting to their orders and teachings. The Tribe-people are blessed with specialized gifts, such as invisibility, supernatural senses and the ability to create a spirit-doubling of themselves, making them highly prized spies and assassins. Takeo is particularly powerful, and the Tribe considers him a valuable asset to their people. But despite honing his gifts, Takeo isn’t particularly sure he wants to be an assassin. Having been raised by his mother’s people, a group of pacifists who worship a secret god, and adopted into the honorable Otori Clan, Takeo is torn between three groups with opposing views, each with a prior claim on his life.
Told in first-person narrative by Takeo himself, the young warrior wants nothing more than to avenge Shigeru’s death and marry his beloved Shirakawa Kaede, a beautiful young woman who is secretly responsible for the death of the warlord Iida Sadamu. With Iida’s death, Arai Daiichi has taken his place, a leader who secures some semblance of peace — but who despises the Tribe and wants to see them eradicated. Finding enemies on all sides, Takeo strikes out on his own in the attempt to find his own destiny. The emergence of a prophesy, the adulation of the outcaste society, the growing hatred of the Tribe toward him, and a dangerous journey through the winter mountains are some of the problems Takeo faces throughout the course of the story.
Meanwhile, Kaede has returned to her homeland (after being a hostage for most of her life) to find her home in disrepair, her mother dead, and her father reaching desperation. Now Kaede must find strength within herself to take on a patriarchal society, protecting her home, her younger sisters, and the inheritance that Lady Naomi bequeathed to her in the previous book: the lands of Maruyama. Told in third-person narrative, Kaede’s story works best when describing this teenager’s efforts to exert control over the scornful men around her and teaching herself how to think and behave like a man. It is weakest when Hearn harks on about how beautiful she is, and how men will desire and endanger her because of this beauty — heck, even her father has incestuous thoughts for her. Hating and fearing all men (except for Takeo of course, a man she hardly knows but claims to be in love with), Kaede has the potential to be an interesting character — so long as she’s kept away from Takeo. The love affair between them has no emotional resonance at all, and her insistence toward the end of the novel that the two of them be married as soon as possible (regardless of the political repercussions) is a frustrating conclusion to a woman who has been trying to exert her independence over males.
In fact, all of the characters are emotionally cold and distant. Although I enjoy the way in which Takeo attempts to negotiate the warring personalities and loyalties within himself, and could really feel the rising pressure in Kaede’s attempt to remain in control of her household, I can’t really bring myself to like either of them. They are ambitious, calculating, and are directly responsible for several deaths in the course of the story. Now, these are not necessarily bad things, they can add to character depth and development if handled correctly. But Hearn pays little attention to the way these things affect her character’s psyches, leaving them as figures that merely do things to further the plot, not three-dimensional characters that grow with each new experience.
Yet, the story itself has me hooked and Lian Hearn successfully makes me wonder: “what happens next?”