A review by JC Kang
Japanese Game of Thrones.
I was first drawn to Japanese samurai stories as a nine-year-old, when the miniseries based on James Clavell’s Shogun graced the little screen for five straight nights. Besides being the first time I ever saw suggestion of the hanky-panky happening on television, what struck me the most was the exotic customs and culture of Feudal Japan. Japanese cinema titan Toshiro Mifune owned each scene he was in.
In high school, I read Shogun at a time when the only thing I read for pleasure was fantasy. To say the least, the miniseries didn’t do the original novel justice. It wasn’t until I lived in Japan and started watching Jidaigeki (period dramas, which, to be fair, are probably as true to history as Spaghetti Westerns) that I realized what a travesty the American miniseries was. (For a stories covering the same period, I highly recommend NHK Taiga Dramas, and specifically Toshiie to Matsu.) Not to mention, a waste of Toshiro Mifune’s talent.
What does Shogun have to do with Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori? I went into book one, Across the Nightingale Floor, not knowing if it was based on real history like Shogun, or a second world fantasy. Clavell, you see, had changed the names of historical figures (not to protect the innocent, I am sure). I was asking myself, had Hearn followed the same path, using fictional names (many given names being from the modern day) to retell actual history?
Book one opens in a village of the Hidden, a group that follows a banned religion that worships One God who sees all humans as equal. It was not unlike the persecution of Christians under Sengoku Japan’s second great uniter, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. As I read, I found a mix of real and fictional place names, as well as allusions to real battles, real histories, real social structures, and real culture. In a mix of fascination and frustration, I swiped back to the map and confirmed it was a Second World story.
Even so, the setting felt to me more like historical Japan than Shogun did. Shinto, Buddhism, and Daoism all played roles, though by different names. The Burakumin, still shunned today as being unclean, made appearances, sometimes in pivotal roles. Certain warrior clans are famous for certain qualities. The role of the Emperor, foreigners, and trade all tracked a parallel path as well. The one difference from real history is the existence of actual stealth magic which commoners of the era attributed to the ninja/shinobi. In Tales of the Otori, these skills are inherited through bloodlines, and the protagonist, Tomasu/Takeo comes from a particularly strong one. His story is told in the first person with a wistful narrative voice, as circumstances take him from his village and into the home of a powerful lord.
A limited omniscient narrator tells the other arc of the story, which mostly follows the beautiful and intelligent Kaede, the daughter of a warrior who lives in the house of a powerful lord as a hostage—as was the custom among Samurai families in Japan. Hearn masterfully “pans” the narration from distant to close as we learn more about her circumstances. It is all part of a complex plot in a struggle for power between the warrior class, ninja tribes, and foreign influences.
The first three books retain this narrative structure, and both characters grow in agency as they face greater challenges in each book. If I have one complaint, it that Kaede does seem to lose agency towards the very end of the third book.
The fourth book takes place sixteen years later and shifts to all third person. In addition to Takeo’s main viewpoint, and Kaede to a lesser degree, we also follow his children as prophecies from the first three books come to fruition.
The secondary characters are fleshed out to feel real; and since many secondary characters die and the main characters face the consequences of their decisions, and underlying tension remains throughout all four books.
As a whole, I thoroughly enjoyed the series for its compelling characters, realistic world building, lyrical prose, and complex plot. I rate it an 8.75 stars out of 10.
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Note 1: If you enjoy happy endings, stop at book three.
Note 2: I also listened to the audiobooks. The first three are superbly narrated by Kevin Gray and Aiko Nakasone. Book four has new narrators, whose Japanese pronunciations were not as good, and sometimes threw me from the story.
*This review was originally published on Fantasy Faction and is republished here with the reviewer’s permission.