Desert Isle Keeper
Across the Nightingale Floor
Across the Nightingale Floor starts with classic fantasy tropes: a young man thrust from a sheltered existence discovering new powers; a young woman made a drudge who falls in love with the prince. What makes it fresh is the Japanese spin: not only is the setting inspired by feudal Japan, but the characters and their motivations (honor, loyalty, alliances, and so forth) are as well.
Takeo, orphaned by a murderous lord’s attack and adopted by that lord’s political rival, must find his feet in a new world of aristocratic luxury, political scheming, and smiling violence, all while developing strange new talents. Will his new powers help him survive long enough to honor his new father and avenge his family? Will doing both, or either, require giving up his love-at-first-sight, Kaede?
After Lord Iida’s sword slice mysteriously left him untouched during the massacre of his pacifist Hidden community, Takeo – in the protective care of Lord Shigeru – begins to find new abilities. In addition to his roots as one of the persecuted Hidden; he seems to have powers of the Tribe, assassins with superior reflexes, preternatural hearing, and even the ability to project illusions of themselves. He studies these skills with the goal of joining Lord Shigeru in his quest to avenge the defeat of Shigeru’s Otori clan at the hands of Iida’s clan many years in the past. Shigeru has allies among the Tribe, but the Tribe also has its own agenda – namely, bringing Takeo home. To complicate matters, Takeo and a minor aristocrat named Kaede fall in lightning-bolt fated love, but Kaede has been sent to marry Lord Shigeru to secure an alliance.
I liked the main couple, Takeo and Kaede. Takeo is a young man with many conflicting loyalties and beliefs: Hidden pacifism versus aristocratic warrior honor versus secret Tribe traditions, for instance, and the desires of his teachers to see him keep his powers secret and in reserve against Takeo’s own desire to use them for Lord Shigeru or for Takeo’s own ends. Consequently, decisions are not simple, and the author imbues all of them with consistent feudal values (how to be loyal to conflicting masters? how to find honor in dirty politics?)
The author does a good job making me understand the passive, quiet Kaede – raised in her position in her society, it would be strange for her to be anything else. Of course, there is nothing normal about meeting a young man like Takeo, and he brings out in her the desire (and the desperation) to be something more than the expected well-behaved ornament. In a book filled with fate, the author portrays the love-at-first-sight as simply another element of destiny. That, plus the consistency of love-at-first-sight with the overall “medieval epic” vibe of the book, made the device work for me. However, if you’re looking for a developed courtship narrative, you won’t find it in this book.
Hearns’ prose is spare and evocative. Takeo narrates in the first-person, while Kaede’s scenes are third-person. I liked the old-fashioned feel of the text, with less action-narration than we see in a lot of fight scenes (the “he switched the knife from his left hand to his right hand and feinted at the enemy’s lower left rib, but he was blocked by a kick” kind of storyboarding). The author creates a framework and your mind fills in the details efficiently and easily.
I accept that in a feudal setting, female characters will be constrained, and I don’t need all my female characters to go on adventures and kick butt with swords (although a female Tribe member does.) As I mentioned, I appreciated that Kaede was written authentically. Still, even with Kaede, I’d have liked to see more internal strength. I really disliked the emotional fragility and ultimately panic shown by Lord Shigeru’s ally Lady Maruyama, which made me question her characterization as a powerful female domain lord. I’m not demanding she be rewritten as a female samurai (which actually would have been authentic; Japanese tradition and folklore contain quite a few), but I do ask that the character be consistent.
I’ve seen some reviews online complaining that the author didn’t accurately represent Japanese elements like tea ceremony or geography. This is silly, akin to complaining that the hobbits are not accurate representations of British yeoman peasantry. What the author has done is use feudal Japan as a jumping-off point for a fantasy setting the way 99.5% of other fantasy authors use medieval Europe, and particularly medieval England. There will be similarities, with the Tribe evoking ninjas and the Hidden evoking persecuted Christians. There will also be dissimilarities, as with specific battles, social class hierarchies, and geography. If you’re looking for a book on feudal Japan, read a book about feudal Japan. This is a Japan-inspired fantasy setting. The author gets to choose what goes in and what doesn’t.
With a vivid and immersive setting, stylish prose, characters grounded in their own culture, and a tense, rapidly-moving plot, Across the Nightingale Floor is a worthwhile and unique fantasy read. It would also be a great YA read.