I found Lian Hearn's fantasy tale ACROSS THE NIGHTINGALE FLOOR: TALES OF THE OTORI BOOK ONE entirely a forgettable experience. Unlike Jim Butcher's FURIES OF CALDERON (*), this book doesn't even manage to hook me enough to tempt me to find what happens next. Though I mildly liked this novel's feudal Japanese setting, the lyrical prose, and the magical elements dealing with special abilities of a group of people, I found the plotting, the sluggish pacing, and the characters, amateurish to say the least. For a novel often dealing with eastern martial arts, I thought the book failed to describe engaging fight sequences. Fight sequences often resorted to, "He was cut down in four slashes," or "Takeo held him off," or "(the villain) was more skillful and experienced and held the advantage." As for the plots, well, the webs of intrigue the book touts from Lady Kaede's perspective was uncouthly rustic: Lord Shigeru's revenge plight never resonated, Takeo's devotion and loyalty to Shigeru seemed an easy manipulation on Shigeru's part, the different clan dynamics a black-and-white affair, and the love between Takeo and Kaede entirely a one-sided stint from Kaede to Takeo, not to mention hollow. Kaede throwing herself at Takeo, and Takeo rejecting her was... cold on Takeo's part and prematurely degrading on Kaede's part given her prior strength of character. A deep-rooted enmity should have replaced Kaede's affections for Takeo after his persistent rejections.
Note that the book makes no claim to historical fact and though the settings and characters bear resemblance to Japanese names and places, a boy's-coming-of-age fictional fantasy best characterizes this 287-page hardcover. Although the book boasts about its complex intrigue plots more than once, it essentially boiled down everyone against the evil Tohan clan and their insidious leader Lord Iida Sadamu. There was no real intrigue or mystery here and most of the plotting was very predictable. For example, Shigeru accepting marriage to Kaede in exchange for traveling to the Tohan stronghold Inuyama was so predictable. It was also clear from the beginning that Shigeru wished to use Takeo and his assassination talents to eliminate Iida while Lord Arai moves against the Tohan militarily. I just didn't get Takeo's blind loyalty to Lord Otori Shigeru once Takeo discovers that Shigeru plotted to find him and knew about his special talents from the beginning. Shigeru would sacrifice Takeo to revenge just as Iida would kill Takeo. Just because Shigeru is kind and respected, and he adopts Takeo, he deserves loyalty? Uhuh, don't you love simplistic, honorable young boys like Takeo? So easily manipulated...
I don't necessarily mind Love-At-First-Sight plots, but this book handles it very crassly and it's all too one-sided. Kaede's strong reaction easily overshadows Takeo's. If anyone deserved Takeo's undying loyalty, it would be Kaede. Not the Otori, not Shigeru, and definitely not the Tribe. Only Kaede's love comes without any conditions or restrictions. But Takeo seemed too easily brainwashed by Shigeru and the Tribe to recognize Kaede's giving love. There isn't even any hint of Takeo's vocalized love for Kaede.
ACROSS THE NIGHTINGALE FLOOR is the opening novel to a trilogy dubbed the Tales of the Otori. Again, I liked the feudal Japanese settings, and I found the factually-based concept of the nightingale floor also pretty unique. The book draws its name from real inventions constructed at many residences and temples throughout Japan. In the story, these nightingale floors are sensitive to anyone walking on them and "sing" as a result. Since the villain Iida has many enemies, he has these floors constructed around his residence at Inuyama alerting the guards to any assassination attempts. And no, I don't want to find out what happens in the other two books.
The Story, possible SPOILERS.
For sixteen years, our main character Tomasu grows up amongst the pacifist, egalitarian group of people known as the Hidden. Unknown to him, he's actually the son of a notorious assassin descended from an archaic race known as the Tribe exhibiting special powers such as invisibility, making copies of your appearance, and acute hearing, sight and touch. The Tribe mostly work now as mercenaries selling their services to the highest bidder, keeping their numbers low and veiled. The book's evil clan the Tohan and their cruel leader Iida persecute various Hidden villages believing their ways blasphemous. When Tomasu returns to his remote village from a venture into the nearby mountains, he finds the village burned and everyone killed by the Tohan. Almost thirty-year-old Lord Otori Shigeru rescues Tomasu from the village, gives him a new Otori name -- Takeo -- and takes him to Otori lands. Shigeru isn't there by accident however, and he's actually looking for the son of the famous Tribe assassin to aid him in a plight for revenge against Iida and the Tohan. The Otori and Tohan clans have a mutual hatred for one another and at a recent battle, the Tohan have forced their subordination.
Back at the Otori stronghold of Hagi, Shigeru trains, teaches and formally adopts Takeo as the Otori heir. After Muto Kenji of the Tribe appears in Hagi, Takeo finally learns of his Tribe heritage and his special talents. For a year in Hagi, Takeo learns of patrician ways, sword fighting, calligraphy, and with Kenji as his tutor, Takeo trains his Tribe talents.
Meanwhile, fifteen year-old Lady Shirakawa Kaede is a hostage under the Tohan, and grows up for half her life with servants which demeans her family and noble rank. Kaede grows into a beauty and struggles to fend of older mens' attentions. Consequently, she harbors a hatred for older men. As she's betrothed to a couple of older men who eventually die, she gains the dubious reputation of causing the death of men who want her. Eventually, Iida matches Kaede with Lord Otori Shigeru in a political alliance to bring both the defeated Otori clan and Kaede's clan out west to heel. Shigeru accepts for a chance to travel to Iida's stronghold. Kenji warns Shigeru that the Tribe are now aware of Takeo and will stake a claim on him that Shigeru and the Otori can do nothing to prevent.
When Kaede finally lays her eyes on Takeo, it's love at first sight. Closer to her age, she feels safe with Takeo despite never talking with Takeo once at this point. Takeo's reaction doesn't nearly match Kaede's. Still, Takeo wants her too. Takeo's blind loyalty to Shigeru and the Otori seems to fog everything else.
As the story drudges along to its predictable and unsatisfying conclusion, Kaede's dubious reputation rings true. The book leaves many plots for subsequent books. No thanks, I think I'll quit while I'm ahead.