Across the Nightingale Floor
Written by Lian Hearn
Firebird, 2005, 276 pp.
“It is good to come home. But just as the river is always at the door, so is the world . . . always outside. And it is in the world that we have to live” (p. 49).
In a fantasy novel set in an ancient country reminiscent of feudal Japan, a twist of fate forces fifteen-year-old Tamasu to abandon his childhood and native culture. Tamasu lives among the pacifist, spiritual, and deeply persecuted people called the Hidden. His serene existence is shattered when his village is set on fire and he finds himself embroiled in a clan war against the powerful Tohan leader Iida. Fueled by revenge, Tamasu miraculously divides his body in two to avoid Iida’s sword attack, saving his own life and sealing his fate as an enemy of the Tohan. The benevolent Shigeru of the Otori clan rescues Tamasu and offers him a new name and identity as Takeo of the Otori clan. Among the Otori, Takeo discovers that he is endowed with the mystical powers of the Tribe, a discovery that both sheds light on his paternal history and further complicates his identity. Takeo cannot deny his allegiance to his newly adopted father Shigeru or the competing forces of his ancestry. Takeo thus embarks on a journey of self-discovery that tests the boundaries of loyalty and self.
Through the use of poetic imagery, vivid characters, and a compelling storyline, Across the Nightingale Floor engages the reader in the tale of a warrior set in refreshingly atypical cultural context. Part of a trilogy, this gripping, action-packed novel is written in the tradition of Harry Potter and will leave readers anxious to begin the second book. Most adolescent readers will identify with the struggle to balance familial ties with the urge to live authentically in a world that poses new possibilities. This novel is an ideal complement to other novels that explore the interplay between geography and identity, such as Daughter of the Flames (Nancy Holder, 2009), Fighting Rueben Wolfe (Markus Zusak, 2009), and Does My Head Look Big in This? (Randa Abdel-Fattah, 2005). As a worldwide best seller, this novel boasts universal appeal and entices even the most reluctant reader to root for Takeo, an unexpected hero battling injustice.
Author Lian Hearn is a scholar of Japanese language, history, and culture, and the recipient of a grant through the Asialink Foundation that enabled him to live in Japan for three months. While he professes that this book cannot be definitively placed in feudal Japan because it is a fantasy novel, Hearn did extensive research to ensure that the novel was culturally authentic. Indeed, the book is infused with classic Japanese metaphors, narrative forms, and idioms. The landscape in which Takeo’s journey unfolds is typical of feudal Japan even if liberties have been taken with more concrete details such as specific names, places, and events. Across the Nightingale offers an alternative setting for experiencing the feudal systems of medieval times through literature. Through enthralling storylines about abuses of power, religious persecution, and the necessary balance between interdependence and independence, the novel is a well-crafted, culturally plausible, riveting read that will captivate adolescent readers.
Heather Neal, University of Cincinnati, Ohio