Tales of the Otori series (Hearn)

Next up: “Across the Nightingale Floor”, “Grass for His Pillow”, “Brilliance of the Moon”, “Harsh Cry of the Heron”, and “Heaven’s Net is Wide” by Lian Hearn.

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Okay, so this series is kind of difficult to rate, because it’s actually grouped into 4 “parts”.  The original trilogy is AtNF, GfHP, and BotM.  The sequel, HCofH, was written with some separation, and was intended to wrap up the series.  HNiW is a prequel to the original trilogy.

Summary

The series largely follows two characters, the first being a young man called Tomasu.  He is a member of the Hidden, a people living in secrecy because they are persecuted and executed by society for their religious beliefs.  Tomasu’s whole village is massacred one day by Lord Iida, though Tomasu escapes and is saved by a lord of a different house– Lord Shigeru of the Otori.  Shigeru adopts Tomasu, changing his name to Takeo and naming him his heir.  Takeo later finds out that he is of the blood of the Tribe, a group of people with extraordinary abilities who are often employed as spies and assassins.  Takeo is Kikuta, and possesses the abilities of that line.

The second character is a young woman named Kaede, who is beautiful beyond measure, but who also is called cursed, for men who love her die.  Kaede is often used as a pawn in political games because of her beauty, her family, and her ‘curse’.  Takeo and Kaede meet when she is engaged to Lord Shigeru, a move calculated to hide his eventual murder.  The two young people fall in love, but are continually separated by circumstance and politics.  Kaede comes into her own power over the course of the series, and plays a very vital role in a lot of the action.

Trouble is brewing between Shigeru, his uncles, Lord Iida, and the warlord Arai.  Takeo owes everything to Shigeru, but the Tribe also demands his loyalty.  The original trilogy chronicles Takeo’s efforts to balance his heritage, his loyalty to Shigeru, his love for Kaede, and the politics surrounding all of them.  The sequel is set 15 years after the end of “Brilliance of the Moon”.  The prequel tells Shigeru’s backstory, leading up to the fateful first meeting of Shigeru and Tomasu.

My thoughts

I really liked the original trilogy.  It’s set in a fictional world that is very clearly based on feudal Japan, and it is also clear that Hearn had a firm grasp on the history and social/political climate of the era.  The Hidden are very clearly a nod to historical ‘Hidden Christians’.  The Tribe is a fantastical nod to the common ‘ninja’ trope. Every aspect of the story is well-wrought, from the setting, to the characters, to the interactions between all the factions, to the addition of mild fantasy elements.  And the storytelling was exciting, gripping me right from the start.

I very quickly liked Takeo and Shigeru’s characters; Kaede’s took a little longer to appreciate, mostly because she is mostly powerless for a good chunk of the series.  This isn’t terribly surprising considering the base inspiration for the society, but it does change as she grows into herself and becomes a more influential entity within the narrative.  I did kind of want to smack Takeo around briefly, when he gets physically involved with other people, all the while still being in love with Kaede and planning on being with her.  I’m not down with cheating, really, and it bothers me when it’s depicted as anything other than a serious betrayal.

I really liked the prequel, “Heaven’s Net is Wide”.  Because I liked Shigeru in the original trilogy, it was nice to have a book entirely about his past.  And to see the infamous Takeshi, whose fate we are well aware of from the trilogy.  It adds depth to the series, another layer of history and understanding for the events in the other books.  It enriches the whole series.

I really really hated the sequel, “Harsh Cry of the Heron”.  So much so that I sold my copy.  I would rather have the incomplete set than to visit the awfulness of the last book on anyone who borrows the series from me.  It seemed to me to be ill-fit; it’s 15 years after “Brilliance of the Moon” and the characters feel weird.  It felt awkward, and I feel like established characters had to be twisted and broken so that the prophecy Takeo received in the original trilogy came true.  Kaede in particular seemed to break from the character that was established for her in the trilogy, and not for any well-explained reason.  Just… nothing felt right, reading HCotH.  You know in the original Cinderella story, where the step-sisters cut off parts of their feet to try to fit into the glass slipper?  It felt like that.  The story and the characters were mangled to try to fit them into the prophecy.  And honestly, I think that was very unnecessary.  The prophecy could have come true in a different way, more organically and truly.  Frustrating.

My recommendation would be to read the original trilogy and the prequel, but then to leave well enough alone and forget the sequel.

Rating

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6/7 stars (but HCotH by itself would have gotten 1)

Warnings

Rape, brought up often.  Violence.  A fair amount of consensual sexing, too.

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