Book Review: Across the Nightingale Floor

It’s like Harry Potter, but with ninjas instead of wizards.

That’s the best and easiest way I can describe Across the Nightingale Floor.

Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori trilogy is fantasy with the slightest twinge of history. Set in a fictional feudal Japan, Across the Nightingale Floor takes place immediately after the events of the fictional Battle of Yaegahara, quite obviously based on the real-life Battle of Sekigahara, which took place in Japan in 1600, and was the decisive battle that ultimately led to Tokugawa Ieyasu seizing control of all of Japan, securing the Tokugawa clan as the last shogunate of Japan, ruling for more than 250 years.

The book begins with a young boy named Tomasu, who lives in a remote mountain village. The people of his village are members of the persecuted Hidden (historically, think Christians), and Tomasu returns from the forest one evening to discover his entire village has been slaughtered by the Tohan clan, under the leadership of Iida Sadamu, the most powerful lord of all the clans in all the land. In a panic, Tomasu flees, and is discovered and rescued by Lord Shigeru of the Otori clan. Shigeru vows to adopt and protect Tomasu, and renames him Takeo. Oh, did I mention that there is no love lost between the Otori and Tohan clans? Shigeru blames Iida for the death of his brother, who, coincidentally, looks strikingly similar to Tomasu/Takeo.

Takeo is raised in Lord Shigeru’s home in Hagi. He eventually comes to realize that he has special abilities, most noteworthy his hearing has become highly acute. Takeo begins tutelage under Muto Kenji of the Muto clan, one of the several clans that make up the Tribe, a group/network of highly skilled spies and assassins. Kenji divulges that Takeo’s father was once the greatest assassin of the Tribe. Kenji then begins to train Takeo in the arts of the Tribe.

Takeo soon finds himself struggling with three separate identities: a member of the Hidden, Lord Shigeru’s son and heir to the Otori clan, and an assassin of the Tribe.

Takeo then travels with Lord Shigeru to Tsuwano, where Lord Iida Sadamu has arranged for Shigeru to marry the young and beautiful Shirakawa Kaede, who had been held hostage by the Noguchi clan since she was seven. Shigeru and Kaede’s union is meant to further unite the land under Lord Iida’s control and bring peace among the clans. Shigeru, however, has other plans.

While Across the Nightingale Floor is widely considered a fantasy novel, Hearn draws heavily on certain historical events and geographic locations of Japan, and makes great use of samurai imagery. While the story has plenty of action, there are well-placed romance elements among the characters. I think Across the Nightingale Floor and the subsequent books in the trilogy have the potential to make a fantastic movie or mini-series.

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