Note: This is kind of a cheater review, since I actually read this book a few years ago. However, I am finally currently reading the second in the series GRASS FOR HIS PILLOW (it had spent far too long in the teetering To-Read pile and I decided it was time) and it’s pretty fantastic so far. Thus did I want to write up a review for the first book so at least our readers will have a base when I post the review of the second book.
I’m known to trawl the used bookstores of Toronto. Not for cheap books, though that is a perk of doing it, but rather to find and replace mass-market paperbacks on my shelves with hardcover versions, or earlier editions. This is an activity I was taught how to do by my co-blogger Chris and something we relished in doing a number of years back. I told you I was a book nerd. Well, in northern Toronto there is a used bookstore that we sort of consider to be the honey pot of hardcover/early edition fantasy and sci-fi. The section containing those books is even on the second level in a nook and cranny corner. Well, one day when I was searching I branched out to the far end of the second level where the young adult books are and lo and behold one title sprang out at me from the shelf.
I was really impressed by such a wonderfully poetic title. So I read the synopsis:
“This is the first book in a new epic trilogy that has already become a bestselling sensation in England and Australia, earning comparisons to The Lord of the Rings. It begins with the legend of a nightingale floor in a black-walled fortress-a floor that sings in alarm at the step of an assassin. It will take true courage and all the skills of an ancient Tribe for one orphaned youth named Takeo to discover the magical destiny that awaits him...across the nightingale floor.”
“Hmm, interesting.” I thought. Considering my interest in my own Japanese heritage and my lifelong enjoyment of things like Bushido I figured I give this one a go. So I think I got it for $4-6 and trundled off home clutching my prize. Little did I know I’d be whisked away so completely.
I was totally engrossed from page one, and like only a few other novels before it I stayed up all night (risking falling asleep at work the next day) and finished it. It had a really amazing Pseudo-Alt-Fantasy-Feudal Japan as a setting called the Three Countries and a set of incredibly realized characters including young Takeo and Kaede not to mention noble Otori Shigeru (who adopts Takeo after his home at Mino is burned) and the nasty villainous Iida whose stronghold at Inuyama contains the titular Nightingale Floor. Those characters weave in and out of each other’s lives as the Three Countries are brought to the brink of war. The Otori seniors want Shigeru killed, Iida wants control of the entire Three Countries and plans a marriage to solidify his plans, and Takeo learns that his father was actually a member of a secret, mystical, and somewhat magical group of individuals named The Tribe, and that he has inherited certain traits. He can “go invisible” and can put people to sleep by staring into their eyes amongst other astonishing, seemingly magical, abilities. The goal set by Shigeru is for Takeo to use these abilities to steal across Iida’s Nightingale Floor at Inuyama and assassinate the cruel warlord. The Tribe, however has other plans. Kaede is also incredibly interesting as her path sets her from beautiful caged bird who has been betrothed to Iida since she was seven into a major player herself within the politics of the world, especially after meeting the stalwart, strong-willed Naomi Maruyama. She realizes that she can do a lot more than just be a prize, that she has it within her to change the world.
What strikes me most about the novel, aside from the inventiveness of a fantasy world based on feudal Japan, is the prose. It is, for lack of a better world, gorgeous. It flows and ebbs with ease. At times it rushes past your ears like fierce storm wind, and at others it gently drifts barely disturbing the petal of a snow blossom. Hearn is quite the wordsmith in fact. Imagine something as intriguing as Harry Potter, but with a descriptive, yet easy and simple, prose. The backdrops to every scene are realized in short order, but are as astounding as stage play. Big and thunderous at times when they need to be and silently beautiful at others. Descriptions of the Otori stronghold The Hagi alone are enough to inspire. I’m pretty sure that was my favourite thing about Hearn’s writing, especially in a book where so much happens plot-wise. The third act of the novel all bets are off and it is a riveting story of adventure, clandestine meetings, betrayals, pure evil, stunning bravery and immense sadness. It’s quite a roller coaster ride and one that I couldn’t’ put down till I read every last page.
I don’t want to spoil too much of the overall plot, but sufficed to say that this is probably one of the most READABLE books I’ve ever opened. Hearn has created a fascinating world that may resemble Japan, but is entirely her own beast as she world-builds into it different religions, geography, castes of people and even magic users.
A sumptuously written feast that can be devoured in one sitting, or slowly pondered over. Either way you are certainly in for a treat with this one. With this book Hearn made me a fan of hers a few years a go, and I’m just sad that it took me so long to get around to the second book. I would also like to draw attention to the titles of the other books in the series. The aforementioned GRASS FOR HIS PILLOW is followed by BRILLIANCE OF THE MOON, HARSH CRY OF THE HERON, and then the prequel HEAVEN’S NET IS WIDE are all really poetic and clever and I think she should be lauded for those choices.
Consider this a recommendation, if you like unique alt-fantasy settings, and don’t mind the YA nature of the series you’d be doing yourself a favour to pick up the first tale. The kind of book that should be read by a roaring fire, or sitting on a tree swing, or laying by a gurgling brook, it begs to be enjoyed.