Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn
|Book Name:||Across the Nightingale Floor|
|Publisher(s):||Riverhead Trade (US) Macmillan Children's Books (UK)|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook|
|Genre(s):||Fantasy / Historical Fantasy|
|Release Date:||June 3, 2003 (US) April 2, 2004 (UK)|
Eastern settings have an exotic magic all of their own even without traditional fantasy elements. From the title and beautiful Japanese-style cover art alone (variants of which can be found on most editions I’ve come across), Across the Nightingale Floor promises a different kind of adventure; dangerous, beautiful and potentially surprising depending on your knowledge of the culture.
The story takes place in an alternate setting based in medieval Japan. Like many a prophesied farm boy before him, Tomasu has grown up in a one-horse town (with no horses) in the middle of nowhere with no idea of the political feuds going on in the wider country beyond the mountains. Equipped with the wandering heart of one destined for greater things, Tomasu finds himself conveniently absent from home the day the wider world catches up with them, returning to find his family slaughtered for being part of a peaceful religious sect called The Hidden. Transformed by shock and grief, Tomasu slights Iida, the ruthless noble who is grabbing power across the country through war and dirty politics, by fighting back, eventually being rescued by a wandering stranger and escaping with a price on his head.
In the company of his saviour and adopted father, Lord Otori Shigeru, Tomasu crosses the mountains, sheds his identity and takes the name Takeo after Shigeru’s recently deceased brother. As they travel he begins to notice changes within himself, temporarily losing his voice but developing in its place superhuman hearing and other useful traits such as the power of brief invisibility and the ability to split himself in two and leave a copy behind him. Upon arrival at his new household in the realm of the Otori clan, Takeo discovers through an old friend of Shigeru’s that he has inherited these abilities from the father he never knew and now owes his allegiance to the Tribe, his real family, where he will be trained as an assassin and hired out to the highest bidder.
Complicating his loyalty, Takeo also learns of Shigeru’s plan to utilise his Tribe powers for revenge upon Iida, the man who killed the Lord’s brother and is determined to marry his lover. Whichever path he follows, Takeo must hone his skills and become an assassin skilled enough to cross the Nightingale Floor whose sweet song warns Iida of unwanted visitors in the dark.
Meanwhile, the high born Lady Shirakawa Kaede, a hostage in the civil war that ravages the country, is marked as an angel of death because her beauty brings destruction to the men who desire her. In an attempt to rid the world of the much-loved Lord Otori Shigeru, Kaede is promised to him by Lord Iida as part of a plot where every possible outcome makes her the loser.
There are many further plot complications, the most significant of which is the clandestine love that sparks between the two protagonists when their eyes first meet. The well-developed world makes the risks for the characters genuine and complicated, forcing good people to lose in a charmingly realistic storyline for a book usually targeted at children and young adults.
Across the Nightingale Floor is truly a treasure for the senses, written in an intentionally peaceful tone that incorporates deliberate room for breath and silence, making it something of an auditory caress. Silence is a significant feature and theme in the book, marking Takeo’s maturity and rebirth from his simple country life into his responsibilities as an adult member of the Tribe and heir to a powerful title as adopted nobility. In turn, this emphasis on the poignant importance of hushed tones increases both the characters’ and readers’ appreciation of sounds as they listen (so to speak) to the songs of the Otori house, the atmospheric rhythm of towns and cities and the whispering step of danger approaching. The very foothold on the precipice of the plot depends upon the song of the Nightingale Floor.
As well as massaging our overused eardrums, luscious descriptions of beautiful summer landscapes and peaceful winter scenes, ripening fruit and endless water features paint an idyllic perception of the varying beauty to be found in Japan (or a fictional place very much like it) and allow a violent contrast to the brutality of the plot and many of its characters.
The brutal images within the narrative are just as effective as the delicate and artistic focus at creating a visceral impact on the senses, although the characters were not developed enough for my taste to find their pain particularly upsetting on an emotional level. This is particularly evident in Takeo and the development of his powers. While I appreciate what Hearn is trying to do in leaving things unsaid in order to keep the plot pacy for its young audience, as an enthusiast of authors such as Robin Hobb and Peter V. Brett I am especially aware that seeing characters grow and develop their skills makes for a stronger relationship with them, especially if their particular skill set is incredibly cool magic. Growing up, my favourite parts of Harry Potter were when Harry and co. were just in lessons learning to levitate feathers and expel Bogarts. I think Hearn could have done more with the characters if she’d trusted more in the attention span of her readership.
That said, although Takeo annoyed me by simply becoming the greatest of all supernatural assassins with seemingly minimal effort and Iida was just a stock baddie who barely got a mention, I thought Kaede was a fantastic character, especially considering the amount of page-time she gets. Petulant child, fragile rich girl and strong woman all rolled into one, Kaede’s conflicting images of herself and doomed nature is a wonderful social observation of women’s roles throughout history that doesn’t leave her as a wilting victim. When she is threatened she takes charge but the rest of the time she is frightened and unsure. I found her refreshing and loveable.
Some parts of the story are approached in odd ways. The Nightingale Floor itself was less of a feature than I thought it would be, which relates back to not seeing much of Takeo’s powers in action, towards the climax we get a lot of third party information that probably should have had more of an impact, and the less said about the love-at-first-sight business the better lest I burn you with my cynicism.
However, despite these niggles, Lian Hearn has produced something uniquely wonderful in her violently beautiful world. The overall research, plotting and storytelling are great, particularly the language itself which glitters with a life of its own. The book has an authentic feel and Hearn’s attention to detail, such as including literally-translated Japanese idioms to give the feeling that it wasn’t originally written in English (“My mother used to threaten to tear me into eight pieces…”), is evident throughout. It’s definitely worth a look, especially if you’re a sucker for striking prose and star-crossed lovers.