Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn

Tales of the Otori Book 1

A review by Nalini Haynes

Takeo is a village boy rapidly growing into manhood. He is Hidden, part of a tribe who worship the Hidden god, because of which they are targets of genocide. One day Takeo returns home from wandering the hillside to find the evil Lord Iida Sadamu and his men slaughtering the village. Takeo escapes, running into Lord Shigeru Otori, who adopts Takeo as his heir.

Shigeru is the deposed leader of the Otori; his uncles have assumed rule of the region while plotting Shigeru’s downfall.

Takeo develops magical abilities that save Shigeru’s life while complicating his own. Then Takeo falls in love with Shigeru’s betrothed.

Across the Nightingale Floor is largely written in Takeo’s voice as a tale told to another, complete with ruminations and backstory ramblings that you might expect if listening to Takeo talk. Lian Hearn breaks one of the cardinal rules of contemporary storytelling in that there is considerable telling instead of showing. However, Hearn has broken this cardinal rule with flair; her story is engaging, Takeo’s voice snares the reader and pulls the reader onwards.

Many scenes are shown beautifully, engaging the senses. Sight, sound and even smell create a visceral experience.

The world of the Otori is a patriarchy but there is one province ruled by a woman where inheritance is through the female line. Part of Across the Nightingale Floor is written in the third person, following Lady Shizuka from her time as Lord Sadamu’s hostage to her planned marriage to Shigeru. Shizuka is placed in the care of the matriarchal line and begins learning warrior skills while acquiring a different world-view. Through Shizuka, Across the Nightingale Floor passes the Bechdel Test and explores equity versus patriarchy.

Across the Nightingale Floor is reminiscent of Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice and Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose while incorporating the flavor of some stories translated from Japanese writing. The ending is particularly reminiscent of an authentic Japanese story I read years ago, borrowed from the State Library of Tasmania. (Although I remember that story in detail 20 years later, the name and the author’s name elude me.) Hearn’s research, her trip to Japan funded by a grant and the assistance of Japanese experts are evident in her world building and manner of storytelling.

Hachette has re-released The Tales of the Otori series with new covers, supporting Hearn’s recent release of new stories. I’ve enjoyed this story and I look forward to further immersing myself in Hearn’s series. I highly recommend Across the Nightingale Floor.

Rating: 4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars
ISBN: 9780733635229
Format: paperback, 384 pages
Publisher: Hachette

Across the Nightingale Floor — a red nightingale sings on a perch over background where a black inklike substance spreads across the white background, symbolising the nightingale floor