Beauty, Grace, Eloquence. These words define the writing of author Lian Hearn. Her Tales of the Otori series of historical fantasy novels are extremely popular worldwide. If you haven’t read the first four installments, Heaven’s Net is Wide is a great place to begin the story.
Because it is a prequel, Hearn has not assumed the reader has much knowledge about the setting or characters. She begins with a hook, describing a confrontation between two members of the Tribe — a family of assassins. Readers of the prior books will recognize the importance of this event right away, but for the new reader, Hearn begins on just the right foot, hooking them into the story.
The tale is set in medieval Japan, with some mythic elements, mostly in relation to the unique abilities of the Tribe. After that first chapter, the story abruptly shifts to the story of Shigeru, giving the reader the history of a character who plays a major role in the later books. Shigeru is first-born son of the weak-willed ruler of the Otori. Recognizing that his own son may suffer some of his weaknesses, that ruler seeks to train Shigeru to control his impulses. Shigeru is sent to learn from a sword master the way of the warrior. Upon his return to his father’s castle, Shigeru find himself embroiled in political intrigue — intrigue which will eventually lead to war and its tragic consequences.
The novel ends where Across the Nightingale Floor begins, leaving new readers desperately wanting to read on.
Lian Hearn has captured the legendary, mythic aspect of story. Although told as a history, with a lot of ground to cover, the story never drags or moves too quickly. Hearn slowly, subtly builds interest in her characters, her world, and her story. The reader is given time to grasp the strange culture in which the story is set, and is allowed time to tie his or her own emotions into the character of Shigeru. Told through an omniscient narrator, Hearn acknowledges what will happen, occasionally breaking the narrative to say that as a result of a particular event, this or that will follow. But it is a natural break, an obvious outflow of the narrator already knowing the later events. Yet it never reveals too much, nor does it happen often, perhaps only three or four times in the entire 500+ page novel.
Throughout The Tales of the Otori, Hearn explores the theme of spirituality. It has been believed throughout history that the Apostle Thomas went into the East to preach the Gospel, so Hearn introduces the Hidden — a seemingly Christian sect modified to fit Japanese culture — as a persecuted people of principles and morals. This positive take on Christian beliefs may offend some readers since it is juxtaposed against the Buddhist cultural traditions of most of the people in the story, but their tale is told in Heaven’s Net is Wide because the protagonist of the later books — Takeo — is Hidden, and Hearn makes much of Takeo’s beliefs making it hard for him to do what he must do in Across the Nightingale Floor. In fact, at her website Hearn says that “Takeo’s journey is one that must transcend the constraints and beliefs of any one sect.”
I thought the character of Shigeru to be a positive character example overall. His understanding of honor and loyalty grows and changes over time. What begins as a black and white issue for him broadens into understanding about shades of grey. His ability to grow and learn about these ideas makes him a fallible hero. He is not bigger than life, simply wise and strong in the face of adversity, and we see why he becomes a mentor, an Obi-Wan-Kenobi-like figure for Takeo. The novel is one I would want to read with my Japanese-culture-obsessed teenager so that we could look at Shigeru’s character, the pros and cons of his decisions, and the way of life in this time and place.
Heaven’s Net is Wide is written so lyrically, so beautifully, that I didn’t want to put it down. Throughout my workday, I would ponder the events surrounding Shigeru, wondering how he was going to deal with the onset of war, balance his devotion to the Otori clan against his own desires, and take care of his turbulent love life. (The only thing I didn’t like about Heaven’s Net is Wide was the easy way that every woman Shigeru meets seems to fall in love with Shigeru.)
Hearn’s story is so full of the alien, the other; the reader is transported away from him or her self. The primary themes of trying to understand the opposite roles of violence and peace, and whether one must inevitably lead to the other, are made to unfold in amazing ways. Heaven’s Net is Wide is a novel you dive into, coming up for air only when you must.
FanLit thanks John Ottinger III from Grasping for the Wind for contributing this guest review.