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Across the Nightingale Floor

Lian Hearn (Gillian Rubenstein)

Macmillan / Pan Macmillan

UK Hardcover First

ISBN 1-4050-0032-5

Publication Date: 09-06-2002

294 Pages; 12.99

Date Reviewed: 02-17-03  

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2003



Fantasy, General Fiction, Horror


The power of prose that whisks the reader into the world created by the writer is called immediacy. It can't be faked or forced, it just happens. Novels that achieve this intimate connection are best set in a world familiar to the reader. Those that manage this while creating a new world are rare and worth seeking out. Australian children's author Gillian Robenstein feared the limelight that had nailed other authors of fantasy fiction for all ages. She called herself Lian Hearn, and that's how I'll refer to the author. Hearn's novel, 'Across the Nightingale Floor' transports the reader into a re-imagined feudal Japan with the grace of beautiful writing. The powerful story, the memorable characters, the imaginative flourishes will make believers out of even the most jaded, hype-happy fashion readers. This novel came with a boatload of recommendations and praise that frankly distanced this reviewer , that caused suspicion rather than anticipation. But once you surrender to the novel's quiet power, you won't want to leave. Economical to an admirable degree and sprinkled with matter-of-fact imagination, 'Across the Nightingale Floor' is surprisingly enjoyable even to those who have had that message shoved down their throat by countless reviewers and advertisers. I'll try to keep mine short.

Good writing can conquer all sorts of ill will. From the onset, Hearn does just this, keeping the prose tight, spare and evocative. 'Across the Nightingale Floor' is set in something that is like but is not precisely feudal Japan. Tomasu, a young boy living in a remote village, journeys out one day and returns to find his home burning, his parents dead. He's saved by Shigeru, an honorable lord who opposes Lord Iida, the corrupt monster who currently rules the Three Countries. Tomasu is renamed Takeo by Shigeru, who takes him back for adoption. Plans are afoot to change the order of things, and Takeo is to play an integral part.

What could be yet another bit of fantasy fluff is elevated from the onset by Hearn's prose. Takeo is possesses some powers that border on the supernatural. Hearn's descriptions manage to make everything seem utterly natural, even when a point-of-view shift comes from the first person of Takeo to the third person of Kaede Shirakawa, a hostage-princess about to be married off in a plot to weaken any opposition to Iida. It helps that the story is told in alternating chapters and points of view. Everything is very ordered in Hearn's world, even the chaos.

One might be inclined to quibble with Hearn's choice to re-imagine a new setting when so much seems so authentic. Clearly a lot of research went into the creation of Takeo's world. But in the end, the power of Hearn's spare and economical tale dissipates any doubt. A lot of plot is fit into just under three hundred pages, but events are never hurried, truncated or drawn-out. For a novel ostensibly aimed at 'younger readers' it has a fairly high content of material that is clearly only suitable for mature readers -- including attempted rapes and lots of bloody swordplay and violence. It's certainly not necessarily suitable for the readers of the other popular 'fantasy for all ages' books. That said, reasonably mature readers should have no problem handling the tastefully written scenes in this book. If adults feel compelled to read this before they hand it to their teenagers, they'll be happy that it's so enjoyable.

Part of the enjoyment of this novel is the wonderful production values brought to the UK hardcover. The dust jacket is tasteful and restrained, and the endpapers are decorated with beautiful Japanese calligraphy. Macmillan reputedly made a huge investment in this novel and it has certainly paid off. Other writers may occupy our media landscape, but for all the promotion, for all the advertising, here's a novel that simply rewards the reader.