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Indian Review of Books: Tales of the Otori

Grass for his Pillow
Book 2 of the Tales of the Otori Trilogy
Lian Hearn

Brilliance of the Moon
Book 3 of the Tales of the Otori Trilogy
Lian Hearn

The Tales of the Otori trilogy, beginning with the widely acclaimed Across the Nightingale Floor (2002) transported readers across the world to an imaginary medieval Japan torn apart by political intrigue and natural disasters; a world of fierce loyalties, superstition, honour codes and high art. Grass for his Pillow and Brilliance of the Moon, the second and third tales in the Otori saga, follow the progress of two young lovers battling a refined, brutal feudal system, an avenging clan of assassins and fate itself to win power, glory and a life together.

Lian Hearn is a pseudonym chosen by Gillian Rubenstein, a British writer who moved to Australia in the 70s. The name is in honour of Lafcadio Hearn, an American writer whose love for Japan led him to change nationalities. Before the Otori series, Rubenstein had already written 35 successful children’s stories, and part of the reason for the pseudonym was that she wanted to avoid being called the next JK Rowling. She found it impossible to evade the spotlight, though, because the books did spectacularly well and the movie rights have been picked up by Hollwood mega-studio Universal

Across the Nightingale Floor told the story of Tomasu, a village boy adopted by Lord Otori Shigeru, whose loyalties were as mixed as his blood – he was born among villagers who belonged to the Hidden, a secret religion that preached the equality of all men, but his father was of the Tribe, a mysterious, dangerous cult of assassins who lived by the sword and dabbled in magic. And he was Otori by adoption, inducted into the rigid feudal hierarchy of medieval Japan and renamed Otori Takeo. He stood to gain great power as the heir to the Otori title, but his special powers marked him out as a member of the Tribe – and the Tribe did not let go of its members easily.

In Grass for his Pillow, Takeo is kidnapped by the Tribe and taught ancient martial-arts skills. But he soon discovers the Tribesmen are plotting to destroy him; all they want from him is a son who will inherit his abilities. He escapes the Tribe and is sentenced to death as a result; as he defeats assassin after relentless assassin, he is led by a caste-less madman to a wise old woman who delivers a prophecy that will change his life: “Your lands will stretch from sea to sea, but peace comes at the price of bloodshed. Five battles will buy you peace, four to win and one to lose…” In order to achieve his destiny, Takeo must build an army, reclaim his inheritance, defeat the Tribe and avenge his father’s murder. Meanwhile, his lover, the beautiful and proud Kaede, begins to question the rules of the society she lives in, where women are property at best, and wonders how to change things – left alone after Takeo is taken by the Tribe, she has to defend herself, command her soldiers and maneuver her way into controlling the lands left to her by her father

In Brilliance of the Moon, Takeo struggles on to fulfill the prophecy about his life. Leading an army of soldiers, farmers, sailors and outcasts, hunted by warlords, bandits and Tribesmen alike, he has to use all his wits and supernatural powers to stay alive and fulfill the prophecy. And in doing so, he has to fight forces more ancient and powerful than any warlord – prejudice, superstition and religious conflict. But more important to him than either power or revenge is love – he is driven relentlessly towards Kaede, now his wife, separated from him by powerful, manipulative warlords, a prisoner of a sadistic, art-obsessed nobleman who wants to add her to his collection.

In many ways, Tales of the Otori is an outstanding work of fiction. The most unusual aspect about the trilogy – at least in terms of young adult fiction – is the fundamentally non-heroic nature of its protagonists. While Takeo and Kaede do question the values that bind their society together and both take steps to change things, their motives in doing so are always utterly selfish, and in that sense both tragic and honest. Takeo becomes another ruthless warlord, slaughtering children, executing the casteless Jo-Ann (his most faithful follower among the Hidden and a man who saved his life more than once) to win the favour of the warlord Arai and destroying innocent lives as casually as his enemies, Kaede is forced to submit to the men whose authority she questioned, and accepts her fate with not-wholly-admirable calm. In the end, both their final individual battles are won not by wits or strength, but by luck and timely natural calamities, and both Takeo and Kaede only serve to more or less completely reinforce the system that caused them and their loved ones so much pain. To carry off these amoral heroes with confidence and elegance in a genre that usually demands a great deal of either charisma or moral fibre in its protagonists is a considerable achievement

The books are marketed as a fantasy saga, but there’s very little fantasy here – it’s more James Clavell for young readers, since the books are more about political intrigue and social change, with the only fantastic elements being the central prophecy and Takeo’s fighting skills – invisibility, sleep induction, self-splitting and enhanced hearing – which are gimmicks not in any way central to the plot. Judged as a fantasy series, the Otori tales disappoint, because not only are they not organic narratives – characters fulfill their tasks to make prophecies come true, and all their achievements seem predestined, and not a result of their choices, unlike in most modern literary fantasy classics – but also because Hearn fails to exploit the rich, diverse and beautiful resource that is Japanese mythology. But the books do succeed as pseudo-historical narratives and as action novels – Hearn has an excellent eye for detail and action, especially in scenes where brutal warriors pause to admire exquisite objects and surroundings, and if you aren’t swamped by the endless political machinations this trilogy is an absorbing, disturbing and moving read.

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About Samit Basu

Writes books, comics, films, other stuff.

Discussion

7 thoughts on “Indian Review of Books: Tales of the Otori

  1. what is “organic narrative”?

    Posted by tgo | October 4, 2005, 3:49 pm
  2. Sounds nice. Never heard of these books before, BTW.
    I’d better start searching…

    Posted by Shobhik | October 4, 2005, 4:03 pm
  3. tgo: stories that happen as a result of choices/actions of characters, as opposed to plans/prophecies

    kanti: much better off saving for stroud 3, or getting to know lemony snicket. though these books are quite nice. if you want to read medieval japanese stuff, read clavell.

    Posted by samit | October 4, 2005, 5:59 pm
  4. Am amzed to have missed such an elaborate work. But sounds a bit like the regular japanese sprawling epic as they show in their manga. Not that if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all though.

    Posted by Pip Squeak | October 4, 2005, 10:15 pm
  5. dude, no disrespect, but sounds like anime would be a better choice….. i dunno.

    Posted by #3tiYo>B_shyo> | October 5, 2005, 12:12 am
  6. BTW, when’s Stroud3 coming out? Golem’s Eye was excellent!
    Clavell…never heard of him either!!! better start searching all over again!

    Posted by Shobhik | October 5, 2005, 2:10 pm
  7. Nice review, much better than mine. though I only read episode i (here in the states you are able to get the first book divided into two parts or episodes) I have fallen in love with the series.

    Cheers

    Posted by Rodrian (animefood) | October 18, 2005, 6:10 pm

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