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Review: Across the Nightingale Floor, Lian Hearn

When a little boy’s family is murdered in a horrible raid, an Otori lord saves his life and gives him a new name, Takeo.  For Takeo’s family was of the Hidden, a tribe which has been persecuted throughout their country, and Shigeru knows that Takeo’s identity will get him killed.  As the story unfolds, Takeo realizes that he has somewhat extraordinary skills; he can hear unnaturally well, be in two places at once, and even draw better than a normal person.  He is a born assassin and he is determined to wreak revenge on the man who killed his family.  Meanwhile, Kaede is a helpless prisoner, forced into a marriage agreement with Shigeru after years of deprivation and unhappiness.  Her marriage offers hope until Kaede realizes just what she’s getting into.

This YA fantasy was a total change of pace.  It’s set in a fictional feudal Japan, a beautiful setting that evokes a much different feel than most fantasy set in fiction medieval Europe.  It helps that the writing is beautiful; I would quote but unfortunately I had to return the book to the library, so you’ll have to take my word for it.  The words of love spoken between the characters, especially Shigeru and his love, were heartbreaking and touching.  Even the title, Across the Nightingale Floor, refers to a floor that most of us would refer to as just creaky, designed to alert the occupant to intruders.  This is the real name for these floors, but it is still far more beautiful than using just plain English.  The book has not only ninjas and samurais and swords, but a feel of history and scope that I loved. Since Kaede and Takeo are from different locations and both travel, we get a feel for this world that is quite breathtaking.

As far as characters are concerned, I liked these, although I do feel we could have gotten to know them a little better.  They all have a massive sense of honor and it was fascinating to see how their personal thoughts played out against their real world actions.  This is such a polite world even as many of the characters sneak behind each other’s backs and murder one another.  If one’s honor is impugned, he or she decides to die.  It’s a foreign world view but extremely well played; it doesn’t feel melodramatic, it fits.  The special magical skills that Takeo had fit, too, especially given that he’s a scion of a special tribe with many of these skills themselves.

Across the Nightingale Floor was a wonderful read.  It’s a different kind of fantasy than I normally prefer but I loved it. I could have done with feeling a bit more emotion towards the characters, but I’m hoping that will come as I continue the series.

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