Grade: Β — Fantastic book within the genre, probably worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that may not appeal to individuals who are not fans of a given genre.
Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn, was one of the most interesting fantasy stories I’ve read in a long time. This was in no small part due to its setting: a fantasy world based strongly on Imperial Japan. I cannot speak to the accuracy of Hearn’s portrayal of that society, but I can say that it is at least as accurate as the bulk of European inspired fantasy worlds out there. What is more, the tone of the narrative and the pace of the book kept me intrigued throughout. You do not need to be a fan of Samurai or Ninja stories to find this a fascinating read, but if you’re intrigued by Japanese culture or want a fantasy novel that is different to the norm, Across the Nightingale Floor is well worth it.
A fantasy version of Feudal Japan. It is never stated (in book one) that this is the case, but the descriptions, scenes and many other elements of the novel clearly demonstrate the basis of the culture.
Across the Nightingale Floor: Tales of the Otori, Book 1 by Lian Hearn was a refreshing novel set in a fantasy version of Feudal Japan. Calling upon popular imagery of Samurai, Ninja and the like, Hearn never once used any of those terms while drawing her well conceived world. Instead, she uses phrases like “Warrior class,” and lets her flow of language and descriptions fill in the blanks. In doing this, she neatly avoids getting caught in a trap of being false to actual historic Japanese culture, while still using the symbolism and iconography associated with it.
What is more, though this is the first book of a series, this volume does more or less stand alone. It has a beginning, middle and end, and while that ending is clearly the set up for a much longer saga, one still feels a sense of closure (albeit fatalistic) that allows one to set the book down with a sense of fulfillment. To that end, it is an excellent introduction to an interesting world which I look forward to continuing.
The story itself is told in two sets of first person narratives. The first is a young peasant boy who is part of a secret and persecuted religious sect; the second is of a noble woman who has been being raised as the maltreated political hostage of a strong Warrior clan. Each of these prove to be excellent storylines that allow the author to provide reliable but uninformed narrators whose inexperience provides the perfect format to educate the reader to the world of the story. To this end, there is a huge amount of cultural data provided without once pulling us from the plot. The learning of the rules and history of the world by the main characters is as much of the plot as the stories of love and vengeance that drive the novel forward.
The tone of the narration is also part of the appeal of the book. It has the general feel of a Kurosawa movie, the slow steady plot highlighted with beautiful imagery and tense action scenes. Though this sense of feel and setting would no doubt find criticisms among those who are better versed with Japanese culture and history, to me the skill with which Hearn does this is remarkable. She tells an action story through a totally character driven tale while describing a fantasy world new to the reader. Well done.
Notes about the Audio Edition:
HighBridge Audio did a marvelous job with this audio book. The quality of the recording is solid, and producers allowed the excellent quality of their narrators to carry the story. The very beginning and end use Japanese flute music which was well chosen, but the rest of the audiobook is left to the narrators, as it should be.
As for the themselves, Kevin Gray and Aiko Nakasone were perfect choices. The hushed tones of Kevin Gray and the actual Japanese lilt of Aiko Nakasone added to the skill of the author in drawing the setting of the world.
While the casting a narrators is always key, in the case of first person narration it is critical, for the reader IS the character, but they must also portray other characters through the tale. Portraying different characters without breaking character is extremely difficult. The actors cannot use a wide variety of voices, for the actors must remain the character who is narrating, but they must still have some difference in their readings or else who is speaking will not be clear. Working with a good text is essential, but that is not enough.
In this case, both Kevin Gray and Aiko Nakasone did a wonderful job. They maintained character throughout, but I never once had a question as to whom was speaking. They are excellent talents who I will keep an eye open for in the future.