Across the Nightingale Floor

Across the Nightingale Floor

Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn (nom de plume of Gillian Rubenstein) was first published in 2002. The novel and its two sequels, Grass for his Pillow (2003) and Brilliance of the Moon (2004), were originally written as a single text but were divided into a trilogy prior to publication. Following its popularity on release, a further two books were penned – a sequel called The Harsh Cry of the Heron (2006) and a prequel called Heaven’s Net is Wide (2007). Collectively, the five books are known as Tales of the Otori.

Across the Nightingale Floor is set in a fantasy land styled loosely around feudal Japan and focuses on the struggles two teenagers; Tomasu and Kaede.

Tomasu belongs to a clan known as the Hidden – a peaceful group of people who abhor violence and worship a benevolent entity known as the Hidden God. At the beginning of the novel, Tomasu returns from a walk to find his village ablaze. It becomes apparent that the Hidden have attracted the displeasure of the Feudal Lord, Iida Sadamu, who has ordered them all to be executed.

Fleeing through the forest, Tomasu is rescued by Lord Otori Shigeru who quickly invited him into his home. Renaming him Takeo, Shigeru encourages Tomasu to hide his Hidden roots and embrace a life as Shigeru’s heir. Soon after, Takeo begins to develop strange abilities – including invisibility, super-human hearing and the ability to conjure a doppelganger – and learns that he is actually the descendant of a master assassin from the mysterious Tribe. Seeing an opportunity to finally end Iida’s tyranny, Shigeru quickly calls upon the Tribe to help Takeo master his dark arts.

At the other side of the fiefdom, Shirakawa Kaede faces a very different problem. Following the deaths of two men who are associated with her, it has become rumoured that all who court her will meet a grizzly end. In order to restore honour to her family she is betrothed against her will to Shigeru, whom she has never met. Disgusted and terrified, Kaede begins the long journey to the capital for the wedding. The thought of intimacy with a man is unbearable to her and she desperately tries to find a way out, even if death is her only escape.

Firstly, I should note that this book is aimed at older teens. The text is incredibly complex in places and some very unpleasant concepts are described in uncomfortable detail. This story contains scenes of attempted rape, suicide and torture, as well as a couple of vicious sword fights, and so sensitive readers should be advised caution.

Before I began reading Across the Nightingale Floor, I had a little look into what critical acclaim the novel had received. Although most of the feedback was positive, I found a number of that criticised the story due to the fact that it does not accurately portray feudal Japan. I’m really not sure what these readers were expecting, but I wholeheartedly disagree with them. Nowhere in the novel is the setting referred to as being Japan. Although there are some cultural similarities, such as tea ceremonies and the use of zodiac creatures to determine the hours of the day, the author clearly states in the acknowledgements that she took inspiration from Japanese culture and used it to create her own fantasy world.

Critiquing a fantasy world for not being realistic enough seems absurd to me. You may as well criticise the story for not being science-fiction enough. I am a believer in judging a book as it is written, not how I think it should be written, and so therefore I see no problem in a fantasy novel being an unrealistic representation of a real world historical setting. This is not to say that the story is perfect by any means, but we will get to that shortly.

Across the Nightingale Floor is beautifully written, lyrical and evocative. The quality of text is incredibly fine and the descriptions are poetic without ever seeming too purple. This helps give the text a haunting air that effectively accents the tale’s slight fantasy overtones. There is always something haunting about the descriptions of the forests and Iida’s elegant fortress that makes it feel like a fable – a sort of dreaminess that helps to soften the stark realism of the rest of the text.

Although breath-taking to read, I unfortunately felt that these passages caused severe pacing problems within the text and therefore muffled some of the shock value that the horrific events of the novel should have had. The pacing of the novel was all over the place. More time is spent in describing Takeo learning calligraphy than is devoted to the destruction of the Hidden village. Often passages which should be exciting, such as the climax of the story, are condensed down so far that they are over before they can effectively build any kind of tension. It felt almost as though the author was more concerned with displaying her love and knowledge of Japanese culture than her desire to weave a gripping and cohesive narrative.

The text also, at times, seemed to lean towards telling the reader about events rather than showing them. Lady Maruyama is described repeatedly as being a strong woman (being one of the few women who control land within the world) and yet we never actually see her exhibiting any kind of strong characteristics. Similarly, although Lord Iida’s presence is felt within the novel due to constant references to how barbaric he is, Iida does very little in the story to make the same impact on the reader. He only appears in person at the very start and end of the story and is really fairly nondescript whenever he does grace the page.

However, with the exception of these two examples, the characters in the novel are on the whole incredibly strong and well developed. The theme of betrayal forms a major plot thread and I was pleasantly surprised to see how my initial opinions of the characters drastically changed by the end of the story. The characters of Shigeru and Muto Kenji (Takeo’s teacher) were by far my favourite, both spending most of the novel hiding their true intents from Takeo. I won’t spoil the twists of the tale for you, but needless to say that they were not quite the characters that I felt that they were from their first appearances.

Takeo and Kaede are also very powerful leads, both bringing something different to the table. Takeo begins the story passive and care-free and his chapters are told in first person, allowing the reader to see him gradually develop as he struggles to come to terms with society’s expectations of him. The metamorphosis that he undergoes as he transforms from one of the Hidden to one of the Tribe is quite staggering, yet never seems too over the top. Given the political climate of the story, Takeo’s actions always seem to be very understandable.

Kaede begins the story as little more than a prisoner – a noble child who is being held captive by a corrupt lord. While Takeo seeks control, Kaede wants nothing more than freedom. Having spent most of her life answering to men, she now shrinks at the idea that they will forever control her fate and is determined to marry out of love rather than honour. Although I found her immediate love of Takeo contrived, Kaede was easily my favourite character in the story. Her struggle was heart wrenching and she succeeded in being strong willed while still remaining true to her characterisation as a noble-born female.

Unfortunately, I have to summarise by saying that I was disappointed with Across the Nightingale Floor. Although it offers some deep characters and beautiful descriptive text, the poor pacing and lack of tension really made it a struggle to get through at times. I do intend to look at the next instalment in a future review, and really hope that these issues are addressed, but given that the way that the novel was written I am somewhat sceptical that this will be the case.

Although Across the Nightingale Floor was by no means the worst novel that I have reviewed for this blog, I did not feel that it was deserving of the high praise that it has received from other sources.

Across the Nightingale Floor can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on

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