This review will contain spoilers!
In many sentences:
It's great to have read this book just after finishing Of Other Worlds, and in particular the essay "On Stories", by C.S. Lewis. In that, he discusses the worth of books with a good Story, and what makes that element unique. One of criticisms he discusses is the idea that people only read novels like this for the "excitement" that they contain. His defense against this, in part, is that if this were the case, then you could supplement the danger found in the book with any equally dangerous event and the book would still be just as enjoyable. In any good Story, however, this doesn't work - the events are more than just the excitement of the dangerous moment.Across the Nightingale Floor is a good example of this not being the case. Though there are several exciting and dangerous moments (the burning of Takeo's village, the assassination attempt, the delivery of the Hidden hung from the wall, Shigeru's capture, release, and death, the battle against Iida are all good examples), you could not simply replace these with other events in which a person's life was in danger and expect the same enjoyment from this novel. What makes these moments compelling and worth reading is everything that supports them. Takeo is a simple, religious boy who is suddenly forced to flight and flee from an oppressive warlord. The contrast of his peaceful life with the cruelty of Iida makes this moment enjoyable to read, not the fact that Takeo may die.
Later, Takeo's night time excursion to free the Hidden captives (by killing them) isn't interesting just because he may die in the process. The compelling thing here is the growth Takeo has seen as he has developed the skills of a Tribe member, while still maintaining the compassion of a Hidden believer. Kenji even remarks when he returns that he is even compassionate and full of pity when he kills. This moment is also more than just the excitement it renders because of all the political ramifications of Takeo's actions. He nearly causes a revolt against Iida through one night of compassion!
There are numerous other examples to the two I detailed above, but in general what makes Across the Nightingale Floor a worthwhile book to read is all the elements that support the Story that are inherit to a world full of Ninjas, Samurai, evil warlords and a little bit of magic. These elements, combined in the unique way that they are, create a captivating Story that is more than the sum of its exciting moments. I really appreciate C.S. Lewis's essay, not just because I think it's true, but it has helped me realize what exactly it is that I enjoy so much about books like this, and to specifically identify those characteristics.
One specific moment that I enjoyed in this book and want to mention is when Takeo and Kaede have their sword practice. It is obvious from their actions that they feel strongly for each other, and everyone around them has noticed. I mention this because far too often novels make it as though half the characters are too stupid to pick up on things like this. Kenji's reaction here (he tells Takeo not to complicate things) is realistic and appropriate. It's a small thing, in a small moment, but I enjoyed it.
The biggest complaint I have about Across the Nightingale Floor is that I don't think there were enough moments of Takeo using his newly developed Ninja abilities. I don't mind that Hearn didn't try to give a logical, detailed explanation of how Takeo is able to do these amazing things (they should be mysterious; he is a Ninja now), but I really enjoyed the few times he used these skills and I would have appreciated it occurring more often. Hopefully it does in the sequel. As a part of this, the invasion of Iida's palace, and his death, seemed to happen too quickly. It just seemed to be over before it began, which was unfortunate because it was such a critical moment in the book (being the climax and all).
I recommend this book, though it's not perfect, because it does capture the Story elements of feudal Japan in a way that makes it more than just a series of exciting events. I'm excited to read the sequels, and I hope that live up to the first book in the series.
"My mother used to threaten to tear me into eight pieces if I knocked over the water bucket, or pretended not to hear her calling me to come home as the dusk thickened and the cicadas' shrilling increased."Lian Hearn the First Line of Across the Nightingale Floor
Lian Hearn the Last Line of in Across the Nightingale Floor