Grass for his Pillow

Grass for his Pillow

Please note that this review may contain spoilers for its prequel, Across the Nightingale Floor. You can read my review of this novel [here].

Grass for his Pillow was written by Lian Hearn (pseudonym of author Gillian Rubenstein) and was first published in 2003. It is the sequel to the critically acclaimed Across the Nightingale Floor (2002) and forms the second instalment of the Tales of the Otori. It is followed by the final part of the original trilogy – Brilliance of the Moon (2004) – as well as a sequel called The Harsh Cry of the Heron (2006) and a prequel called Heaven’s Net is Wide (2007). The novel carries on exactly where Across the Nightingale Floor ended and so I would strongly advise that you read the novels in order in order to fully appreciate them.

Although Otori Takeo wishes to avenge the death of his adoptive father, he is bound to Tribe by his oath. Swiftly whisked away from the safety of Terayama, he soon realises that they have great plans for him. The Tribe both admire and loathe him for his powerful abilities and lack of discipline. As they force him into a rigorous and brutal training program, Takeo slips further and further into despair. He knows that his life as a nobleman is over and he will never be allowed to see his beloved Kaede again.

Shirakawa Kaede also nurses a broken heart. Now pregnant with Takeo’s child, she has little choice to return to her homeland. She arrives to find that her family lands have been almost destroyed by war and famine and her father is a shell of his former self, maddened by his own cowardice. Although the expectance is that she will marry again quickly, Kaede chooses to turn her back on tradition. As she observes the weakness of the men around her, she swiftly decides to follow a new path. As the heir to both the Shirakawa and Maruyama lands, she chooses to remain unwed and control them herself.

As Takeo and Kaede adapt to life without each other, the land around them begins to turn to chaos. A harsh winter and rise in taxes have left the lower classes unsatisfied and Arai Daiichi still struggles to fill the power vacuum left by Iida’s death. With war inevitable it’s not long before a prophecy rises amongst the Outcastes, stating that Takeo will return to take his rightful place as an Otori Lord and bring peace to the land…

I should probably begin my review by noting that Grass for its Pillow, like its prequel, is definitely intended for older teens. Not only is it complex and textually dense but it contains some scenes of violence, torture and attempted rape that could upset sensitive readers. Please bare that in mind if you decide to pick up this novel.

As I mentioned in my review of Across the Nightingale Floor, the original Tales of the Otori trilogy was first written as a single novel. With this in mind, it’s very easy to understand why it contains all of the same strengths and weaknesses as its prequel. To start by giving it some praise, this novel is truly beautiful. The text is highly descriptive and weaves a haunting image of the Three Countries. There is nothing in this story that is not simply stunning as Hearn has an incredible eye for detail. Her words paint a vivid and memorable landscape that is made real by the tiny details – scents, textures, tastes – that help to captivate the reader and transport them into Takeo’s world.

However, I did feel that sometimes the descriptive writing was a little too over-the-top. There were times when truly horrible things happen in the story yet I felt that the poetic language blunted the edges, removing some of the brutality from the events. When one character miscarries her child halfway through the story, the author first describes this by saying “her child slipped away from her like an eel”. While there is some grotesque beauty in this choice of words, it still distances the reader from the mother’s suffering. This woman has just lost her first child. There is no beauty in that. Similarity, a lot of the other action occurs off page. While this was also a problem in Across the Nightingale Floor, it is far more prevalent this time round and makes pacing of the story really uneven. Although the early chapters do spend a lot of time depicting the events of a single day, the later chapters felt incredibly rushed (the last thirty pages or so suddenly flash forward over a number of months).

This is a common issue with novels that form the second part of a trilogy. Authors seem to struggle with making them complete stories in their own right, instead using them as an extended build up for the final part. This is especially obvious in this book. Although both Takeo and Kaede had their little story arcs, the novel itself lacked the strength of Across the Nightingale Floor’s plot. It instead served to do nothing more that put the characters where the author needed them to be for its climax – giving Takeo his army, indicating the political climax and setting the goal of the reclamation of Maruyama.

When it comes to characterisation, the supporting cast of this story felt less developed than last time. The cast of this story was huge and I frequently had to refer to the character list at the start of the book in order to remind me who was who. Some of these characters, such as the most important members of Takeo’s army, really came out of nowhere. I believe that many had tiny roles in the previous story but were so insignificant that time round that I had forgotten about most of them. Others who felt as though they should be important, like Arai Daiichi and Muto Kenji – hardly appeared at all. I noted last time that Iida never felt like a threatening antagonist because he did not appear enough within the story and the same is certainly true of Arai. Although his presence is occasionally felt, I never really got the impression his was all that powerful.

However, the principle cast did continue to shine. Takeo was still a very sympathetic character and I did feel for him as honour pulled him in two separate directions. His heart remains with Kaede and his duty to the Otori yet he knows that if he follows it, the Tribe will have him assassinated. However, the Tribe’s treatment of him is so horrendous that it makes for some very compelling reading. Yet, it was Kaede that truly made the story for me.

Kaede went from strength to strength within Across the Nightingale Floor, developing from a frightened hostage to an independent woman. This development continued throughout this story, enabling for her to gradually grow into a powerhouse. Although Kaede’s attempts to control her estate are at first met with scorn by the men around her, she gradually begins to earn the respect due to her intelligence and hard work. The most satisfying scene comes when she manages to best one of Arai’s Lords in a discussion, as he makes the mistake of thinking of her as nothing more than a weak woman.

However, once again, I am forced to question the strength of her relationship with Takeo. I’m really sorry to bring this up again but I still just can’t buy it. Their relationship in Across the Nightingale Floor, while passionate, was very fleeting and yet they are still both willing to risk both of Kaede’s lands (plus the lives of everyone who live there) in order to be married. Their love also felt a bit as though it cheapened everything that Kaede had fought to achieve – she spent most of the novel trying to convince the other Lords that she was their equal, only to turn her back on politics to pursue a love without her Overlord’s permission. I know that their love is supposed to be beautiful and moving but I could not escape from the fact that it seemed to be tactically stupid. This is probably why I don’t read that many romance novels…

Anyway, I’m starting to ramble again so I’ll wrap this up. Grass for his Pillow was a very beautifully written story and its main characters are still incredibly strong, however I did feel that it was a weaker novel than Across the Nightingale Floor overall. It felt more as though it was just filler, moving characters into position for the final battle. On top of it, the supporting cast seemed to have less to do this time around and therefore did not really make much of an impression on me. As there is clearly a great war on the horizon, I am curious to see how the trilogy will wrap up but at the same time I don’t really feel any burning desire to find out any time soon.

Grass for his Pillow can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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