Thursday, August 30, 2012

Across the Nightingale Floor

It's time for another look at slightly older books. Two friends of mine who we'll call Misanthrope and Longshanks recommended Across the Nightingale Floor to me five years ago, promising that it was unusual, vivid, brilliant at alternate-Japan historical details, and above all cool. I just read raced through this book and am delighted to say it: you were right.

Rating: 4.5 stars
Length: Beautifully complex, but tightly paced (287 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: June 3, 2003 from Riverhead Books
Premise: A youth who has grown up in a small village learning only the religion of peace is forced into violent adulthood when his village is burned by the forces of Iida Sadamu, a warlord. Otori Shigeru, one of Iida's rivals, rescues the youth and renames him Takeo. They soon discover that Takeo possesses the powers of the Tribe, spies and assassins who use their remarkable gifts to move and kill in secret. Obligations and treachery threaten to upset the fragile life he is building, especially when Shirakawa Kaede, a young woman with a unsought reputation for death, steps into the dance.
Warnings: fairly gruesome treatment of prisoners, two brief and non-graphic attempted rape scenes
Recommendation: If you enjoy assassins, feudal Japan, political wrangling, tragic love affairs, or really just good writing, give this one a try. It somehow lands precisely in the YA/adult divide, showing gruesome fates and hard choices without either flinching away or wallowing in them.

What gives this one a rare sort of beauty: 

Lian Hearn's prose is much like the calligraphy that Takeo learns; every stroke is precisely executed to convey emotion and information, and then it ends without dragging on into unnecessary detail. This is most obvious during character introductions. We learn that a character is beautiful or old, or has broad features and an open-hearted smile, or is wearing exquisite robes of a certain color, and then move on. There's just enough to let the reader picture each character and call them to mind without spending pages on end describing people's robes every time they change clothes. The narrative also gracefully skims over time, letting months ripple by in short summaries so that you know things happened instead of hearing in exhausting detail exactly how Takeo got along with his fellow students in the art of weapons. I harp on distribution of detail a lot on this blog, and Hearn is unquestionably doing it right.

Otori Shigeru stands at the center of the story, holding the webs of connection in his hands. He is deeply loved by people all across the land; many see the hope of him assuming clan leadership as the best thing that could possibly happen. His plans are often for political gain, but he's oddly open, willing to banter and push slightly to see if he can get out of a situation without harming people more than he has to. He is friends with seemingly everyone; his own guards, civilians far away, priests, and the deadliest of assassins. The whole construction of his character plays up the restraint of the novel; terrible things happen, and his brother was burned alive in a house, but men and women have to survive and keep doing what they can, so shock and mourning can't last forever-- there's always another move in the game. Although he saved Takeo from the village, there's a hint that he went there specifically to find a boy with assassin talents. The affection between them is genuine, but his past and full motives are a perfectly light-handed mystery.

Takeo's character is interesting largely because of his struggles. He was raised in pacifism with the religion of the Hidden, but the way his village was burned leaves him desperate for vengeance. He is unknowingly part of the Tribe, magically gifted people who use their powers for spying and assassination, but his first loyalty is to Otori Shigeru for rescuing him from his village. Divided loyalties keep him in a constant state of tension, since having what he wants is impossible without breaking faith. Takeo is only sixteen, and it shows in just the right ways-- he is passionately loyal and in love with learning, but also young enough to mourn the death of his family without shame and use his powers to sneak out and explore so he can satisfy the restlessness that eats at him. His deep emotions and burning temper show his youth, but he's refreshing free of the self-centered angst that floats around many protagonists of this age. 

His connection to the Tribe helps to add an edge of mystery to the novel; without it, the dark superstition that runs through the book would feel shallow or ignorant. People worry about gods and demons and angels in part because they know that the Tribe walks across the land without being detected. Different clans of assassins have various powers; some can shift their faces so that they can't be recognized, making themselves look decades older or younger. Others can send an illusory second self out to be a target while they move in invisibility. Takeo, as one of the Kikuta, can sometimes make animals and people go to sleep with the power of his gaze. All of them can move swiftly and silently enough to kill without leaving a trace, and it's a point of honor for them to train each other and maintain their strength. This can make them cold, which is the central trait of any good assassin group; they're loyal to each other, but that can mean threatening or kidnapping each other, even pulling them away from lives they love, because it would be to the good of the group. They're honorable, but in a merciless way that makes the individuals easy to admire but the group easy to hate, and that dynamic is just lovely.

Fascinating though Takeo is, the soul of the story rests in the hands of Shirakawa Kaede, a fifteen-year-old who was sent away as a hostage when she was only seven. She possesses secondhand power because whoever marries her will inherit her father's lands, but she is also vulnerable as a young woman living in the house of her enemy. That vulnerablity has forced her to hide her anger at being forced to live as a servant, but she's intelligent enough to grab at political opportunities even when she doesn't know the players on the board. She appreciates her own beauty after a first glance in the mirror, but she's keenly aware that the grace she enjoys also makes her more of a target for the men who control her life. Men have attempted to rape her, and those encounters leave her scared, disgusted, and enraged at the whole business. When she finally leaves the castle of Noguchi, the family holding her hostage, she immediately takes to the study of both weapons and political problems with the eagerness of someone who has been without the tools of power for her entire life. Her emotions are believably vivid; she fears that maybe she is really cursed, but is also able to fall suddenly and irrevocably in love.

Love in this book is compelling, in part because the characters spend so little time being able to express it. Otori Shigeru, Takeo's rescuer, is in love with Lady Maruyama, who is both beautiful and able to rule her lands in her own right without the authority of a husband. They cannot meet often, especially since Lord Iida has been pressing her for her hand in marriage, but it's perfectly believable when they say that they will not marry or live without the other, even if it would be much easier and safer to do so. They love both in spite and because of the politics that connect them; they need a military alliance to bring down the enemies at their door, and that knowledge keeps death a hairsbreadth away. Takeo and Kaede explore the same dynamic of doomed love in different ways. They love each other at first sight, all the more so once they've sparred. For spoiler-based reasons, it's impossible for them to be together, and everyone assumes that they'll just get over it given time because they're teenagers. That they don't get over it makes everything more complicated, but it's also possibly the most poignantly believable love at first sight story I've ever read. The whole book ends on a perfectly bittersweet and suspenseful note that makes the next volume feel necessary.

The red pen: 

The flaws in this one mostly aren't too intrusive, but they jangle all the more against such a strong backdrop; it's a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. The overarching one is the issue that emotions are occasionally told bluntly in such a way that they seem less important. For example, when one character meets Kaede, "she brought her for the first time into contact with the outside world, from which Kaede has been isolated." Kaede hasn't had a proper friend since she was seven or seen her family in years, and that's leaving aside her loneliness and survival of a rape attempt; we know that she's isolated, and this little paragraph serves as a slightly clumsy transition to introduce this new friendship, which is intriguing enough to not need this sort of framing.

There's also one bobble of realism when Takeo is with Shigeru waiting for an audience with some political enemies. These men know about Takeo's supposedly excellent hearing, but they discuss their plans, their true feelings about Shigeru, and a matter that they really should have settled at least a month ago while he's waiting in another room. That matter is a major pivot point that's been a suspenseful question for the last few chapters, and it shows as an off-kilter way of passing communication. Being morally dubious or even evil doesn't make you an idiot, but some people definitely seem to slide over that line. Lord Iida Sadamu is definitely among them. His political acumen shows in some places, but he's also quick-tempered enough to say the wrong thing in public, or take advantage of his power in obvious ways that do little but hurt others and foster resentment. It could be that power made him lazy, or that he had brilliant advisers, but his brutality tends to be more obvious than his intelligence.

All in all, Across the Nightingale Floor is one of the best things I've read in months. It differs on a profound level from a lot of other fantasy books; this one manages to hit research, action scenes, political intrigue, real emotions, love affairs, and some fairly ugly mistreatment and death scenes, all without wavering from its smooth clarity. Prose this graceful is rare, as are stories this straightforwardly bound up in caution and pain, and I cannot wait to have time to track down the rest of these.

Prospects: The Tales of the Otori set has three sequels to his book and one prequel, Heaven's Net is Wide. It's about the youth of Otori Shigeru and came out in 2008.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~It's hard to compare this to anything else, but Daughter of the Empire nails a similar combination of historical research and fantasy. It's admittedly much longer and moves more slowly, but it's worth a read. 
~Sean Russell's The Initiate Brother does a wonderful job with the patient slowness of assassination and the cultural research. It's long and dense enough to drag a little, but it's certainly a good read despite that.
~For a similar aura of history with a light touch of magic, try Judith's Tarr's The Hound and the Falcon trilogy, which I will review one day purely for the excuse to read it again. Brother Alf is living in Crusades-era England and trying mightily to ignore his magical heritage when another magic-holder comes to call.

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