Whilst it never gained the traction of the likes of Pullman and Potter, the TALES OF THE OTORI series has all the same ingredients: the epic scope, mystery and intrigue, impossible love and an entirely immersive setting. Whether it was luck or timing that never saw the series reach the same heights as its contemporaries, its same crossover appeal proves it is surely one of the great YA fantasy series. So how is it possible that Lian Hearn (pseudonym of Gillian Rubinstein) can undermine this entire sweeping epic in one fell swoop?
The Harsh Cry of the Heron (2007) begins sixteen years after the trilogy’s finale in Brilliance of the Moon: Lord Otori Takeo and his wife Kaede have ruled the Three Countries peacefully and have born three daughters: Shigeko, now of marriageable age, and two twins, Miki and Maya, both thirteen.
Yet that peace is about to be challenged. Akio, the leader of the Kikuta branch of the Tribe (the secret web of assassin families with supernatural skills) and Takeo’s greatest enemy, is after revenge. What’s more, Takeo’s brother-in-law seeks to unseat him from power by forming alliances with the emperor and the strange foreigners with their new religion and firearms. A lot of complicated political and personal intrigue ensues, as Takeo, his daughter Shigeko and his loyal retainer Hiroshi visit the capital to accept the challenge of the emperor himself.
At more than six-hundred pages long, The Harsh Cry of the Heron is Hearn’s most ambitious and complex novel in the TALES OF THE OTORI series so far. The characters are as compelling as ever, particularly the new additions of Takeo’s daughters: Shigeko’s secret love for Takeo’s retainer Hiroshi will have readers entranced, and the tragic coming-of-age of the twin Maya recalls the journey (and spunk) of George R. R. Martin‘s Arya Stark.
Four-fifths of the novel, then, are as immersive and intriguing as the original trilogy. Hearn proves herself to be a deft and masterful writer, weaving complicated plot strands through a beautifully described and evocative setting. Why, then, did the story seem to take such a drastic nosedive?
Whilst a happy ending is by no means required (or realistic), authors do have a certain responsibility to their readers — especially to the readership of a series of this scope and scale. The ending needs to be satisfying. It is true that Hearn tied up all the loose threads of the story, but only by apparently burning them all to the ground.
Not one character achieves the end that readers will have been rooting for. Love stories that had been built up and tension-fuelled throughout The Harsh Cry of the Heron are thwarted and unfulfilled. Desperate reunions end in death. Flaws are resolved through death. Death is the general theme of the novel’s finale. It was left on such an unhappy and unsatisfying note that readers will wonder why Hearn returned to the series at all.
The original trilogy could not come more highly recommended and despite a huge portion of The Harsh Cry of the Heron being a wonderful read, it is not worth the frustration of the ending. If fans of the series cannot resist returning to its world, stop reading at chapter forty-three if they want to leave with their faith in the world intact.