Tales of the Otori
Across the Nightingale Floor
Grass for his Pillow
Brilliance of the Moon
by Lian Hearn
Riverhead Books (a Penguin imprint)
Review score: *** out of *****

My father is an architect (he was one of the founders of the firm Kaplan McLaughlin Diaz). As a newly minted architect he worked for the US Air Force designing buildings for US bases in Japan for two years. This gave my father a taste for Japanese samurai movies before they were very well known in the United States.

When I was old enough to read the subtitles (perhaps eight or nine) I would go with my father to see samurai movies at a Japanese movie theater in San Francisco's Japantown. I remember going to see Chushingura (also called The 47 Ronin) and asking my father why Lord Asano had to kill himself.

I have been fascinated by Japanese culture, art and history since seeing these movies. Before the modern era the most interesting period of Japanese history was the civil war period, before the Tokugawa Shogunate was established (1603). This was a period of constant warfare between the Japanese clans that controlled the various domains.

Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori, which are comprised of the three books Across the Nightingale Floor, Grass for his Pillow and Brilliance of the Moon, is set in a mythical place that is heavily influenced by medieval and civil war era Japan. Lian Hearn is a pseudonym (for Gillian Rubinstein). She apparently has studied the Japanese language and spent time in Japan. Searching Amazon US it appears that Ms. Rubinstein has published childrens books and the Tales of the Otori are her only books for adults.

One of the things that has always grated on me about the "sword and sorcery" fiction is the romanticization of feudalism. Feudalism is a brutal form of government and as human culture advanced it was replaced with better forms of government (at least in the modern western world). Lian Hearn does not portray feudalism through the rose colored glasses of sword and sorcery fantasy. The samurai lords in the Tales of the Otori are just as brutal and ruthless as the samurai lords of historical Japan.

Hearn's story is richly woven and she is an engaging writer. The story not only touches on the lives of the samurai class, but also that of farmers, craftsmen and "untouchables", who in feudal Japan were the tanners, grave diggers and night soil (human waste) collectors. The story quickly sucks the reader in and I found myself devouring the three books. The characters are fully drawn and as the story proceeds we come to care about their fate.

The Tales of the Otori orbits around love stories, in some cases doomed love. As with all feudal societies, marriage in the ruling samurai class was not for love, but for political advantage. Such a system provides the foundation for tragedy when love actually blooms.

Hearn's Tales of the Otori is full of plot twists from its early pages, so it is difficult to discuss the plot without giving anything away. The plot is complex and by the time I had started the third book (Brilliance of the Moon) the complexity of the plot seemed to suggest that it would take four or five books to fully unfold. However, the end of the story is finally reached in the third book. When the story comes to a close, it is reached through the intercession of an "act of God", which works to globally tie up loose ends. I was left with the impression that Lian Hearn may also have felt that there were another one or two books left but she did not want to write them. So instead the plot was rushed to a conclusion. The rushed end of the trilogy is unfortunate, because in many ways the books are an example of almost flawless fantasy writing. Despite the abbreviated ending in book three, I recommend these three books. I hope that the rushed ending does not mean that Lian Hearn (Gillian Rubinstein) has given up writing this kind of sophisticated fiction, since I would like to be able to look forward to more of her work.

Ian Kaplan
March 2005
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