Across the Nightingale Floor - Review

Fourteen years since its initial publication, Across the Nightingale Floor is a calm, measured book. It's the kind of fantasy unconcerned with frenetic plotting and frequent action, preferring to channel its energy into developing compelling characters, multifaceted politics and a sprawling world inspired by the real feudal Japan. Though it's been a beloved Australian classic for the better part of two decades, I'm only now experiencing Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori for the first time. This is thanks in part to the recent re-release of Hearn's series in gorgeous new covers, but also because the prequel series, The Tale of Shikanoko, set three hundred years before Otori, begins in March 2016. So before seeing where everything begins in the fictional world, it's good to go back to the beginning in the real one.

The Three Countries are ruled by the Clans. After escaping the destruction of his village and the murder of his family, the young boy Tomasu is rescued by the eccentric Shigeru of Clan Otori. Giving the boy the new name Takeo, Shigeru trains him as his eventual successor after discovering Takeo has the abilities of the Tribe, a collective of possibly superpowered warriors who live in secret. While Takeo learns the ways of the Otori from Shigeru, young princess Kaede becomes betrothed to Shigeru as part of a peace agreement between two Clans. Upon meeting Takeo, both he and Kaede become enamoured, and must deal with their star-crossed love as the impending union threatens to tear them - and the Clans - apart.

Despite the layered description above, Across the Nightingale Floor is a relatively sedate book for most of its pagecount. There's a gradual pace that doesn't get too frantic, allowing readers to luxuriate in the lovingly-rendered world Hearn has created. Japanese aficionados will recognise a lot of the cultural background amongst the fantasy elements, making it both a familiar and excitingly new place to visit. Hearn's description of the setting and the characters is well thought-out and executed with a prose that is as accessible as it is expressive. It falls down a little at times when a scene that should take a paragraph is described in a sentence; a character kills another, wipes off his blade and calls for help in literally the space of a few words. Not that there needs to be Robert Jordan-levels of purple prose, but a little more dwelling on moments like that would give them a bit more weight.

What's very clear about Nightingale is that's a foundational book, setting up ideas and themes that will be explored in more detail through the following four books. The world assumes our knowledge of elements that haven't been adequately explained; aspects like the true significance of the Tribe, the animosity between some of the Clans and, in one spoilerrific case, the motivation of a main character who quite suddenly becomes ambiguously villainous, are things that aren't really fleshed out enough. I suspect a lot of this will be explored in detail later, given how long some of the later books are, and it's apparent Hearn's put a lot of time into fully building her feudal Japan-inspired world for the long narrative haul. It also helps that our protagonists, Takeo and Kaede, are well-layered enough that I wanted to see them explore this world further.

Some might be turned off by the book eschewing a rushed pace, and the lack of substantial action scenes until the third act also doesn't give us much of a chance to explore the actual magic aspect of the series. But again, I feel like Hearn's set us up to see more of this depth in the following novels. There's nothing wrong with having a book that's the first part of a longer story rather than a story unto itself, but it makes it hard to judge whether some of the book's lacking qualities are ones that will be addressed further down the line, or if they're endemic only to this volume.

On its own, Across the Nightingale Floor is a patient, tantalising story that is a great debut for Hearn's beloved series; despite fourteen years, the book doesn't feel even slightly dated. The ending left me genuinely excited for Book 2, and it's made me all the more curious for Hearn's The Tale of Shikanoko prequel in March. Definitely worth checking out.

- Chris

Across the Nightingale Floor and the rest of the Tales of the Otori series are available in bookstores now.
Review copy kindly supplied to Geek of Oz by Hachette Australia.


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