Tales of the Otori trilogy book review

After having mentioned Japanese literature in a previous book review, it’s time to return to the setting of Japan for this week’s review. Not only that, but it’s time we entered the realm of fantasy literature, which happens to be my favourite genre and could not be missed in this column. This week, I therefore look at the Tales of the Otori trilogy by Lian Hearn, composed of the books: Across the Nightingale FloorGrass for his Pillow and Brilliance of the Moon.

About the author:

As her name might give away, Lian Hearn is not Japanese and therefore we can’t really classify these books as Japanese literature. However, she has shown a life-long interest in Japan which brought her to study the Japanese language, involved many trips to Japan and culminated in the writing of these novels. Lian Hearn is in fact a pseudonym, used to publish this series of novels as she wanted them to be judged for themselves and not assimilated to her other books which were mainly children’s novels. Her real name is Gillian Rubinstein and she has written many books for children and teenagers under this name, enjoying quite some success.

About the books:

Lian Hearn may not be Japanese, but she shows a surprising accuracy in her facts, knowledge of Japan, and use of Japanese language. This gives the novels a real feeling of authenticity, and allows us to feel that we are really discovering Japan and its history. As in Norwegian Wood and other Japanese novels, we feel ourselves immersed in that calm yet powerful Japanese culture, learning its intricacies and traditions, and in this case learning a bit about Japanese history.

The novel also introduces to us the concept of different clans in Japan, and the cultural rules that come with these. Our main character comes from the Hidden clan, a group of people who are mainly considered as outcasts and who often have to hide their identity as they are persecuted for their beliefs. But we also learn of the more powerful clans: the Otori and the Toha, both of whom are fighting for control over certain regions in Japan.

The novels follow our main character Takeo, born Tomasu, from his tragic childhood, all the way through to his adult life marked by secrets, challenges, and of course romance. We start by following Takeo when he is still Tomasu, left to his own devices and roaming through the woods. He is deeply traumatised and has become mute, as is discovered when he is rescued by Otori Shigeru.

The tale that unfolds in the first novel is that of Takeo’s nurturing by Otori Shigeru, and his slow reinsertion back into life. Shigeru provides refuge and a home for Takeo, and decides to educate him as a warrior of his own. Takeo and Shigeru develop a strong bond, and finally Takeo comes out of his mutism whilst at the same time it is discovered that he in fact has great powers known to belong to those of the The Tribe. Because of this, The Tribe make a claim on Takeo and his talents and abduct him, whilst at the same time he must answer to his legacy as heir of the Otori clan, and he meets the love of his life Shirakawa Kaede.

The second novel has us follow Takeo in his journey across Japan. He has a newfound identity having discovered his powers and his belonging to The Tribe, and yet he is torn as he still feels devoted to the Otori clan, his second family. He undergoes rigorous training with The Tribe who instruct him in their ways, learns to further develop his unusual skills, and manages to make new friends and allies within The Tribe. Away from the love of his life Kaede, he meets another woman whose company he enjoys, and entertains a relationship with her. In the meantime, Kaede is faced with her own problems as she returns to her homeland to find it destroyed and her father half mad. She tries as she can to hang on to their legacy, but is faced with much resistance and difficulty in her endeavours.

The final novel sees a culmination of all the ongoing stories we have been following. Takeo decides to leave The Tribe despite the danger it entails, and reclaim his right as member of the Otori clan. In doing so, he also plans to marry Kaede, though this is frowned upon by many as they do not ask anyone’s permission, and gets them both into considerable trouble. Together, they are owners and leaders of a powerful empire, but they will have to fight in order to be able to maintain their claim to it.

The trilogy is excellent and succeeds in combining several different key elements without overdoing any single one. The story of rivalry between clans is one we are well used to reading about in European novels, though it is refreshing to read about it in a Japanese setting. Takeo’s powers and unnatural abilities are what bring the element of fantasy to the novel and make it more exiting and exhilarating for us as readers, wondering whether his powers will be able to get him out of the tricky situations he is in.

Takeo and Kaede’s love story is a very moving one, one that succeeds in making us empathise with them but does not overtake the main plot. We can truly understand the love they feel for each other and the difficulty they have in being separate, and why this drives them to making irrational moves.

We also discover Japanese history, Japanese geography and inklings of Japanese culture in the most captivating setting of these novels. If you enjoy fantasy literature but would like a change of scenery from monsters, ghouls and wands, then I highly recommend the Tales of the Otori as your next read.

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One Response to Tales of the Otori trilogy book review

  1. Richard says:

    You wrote the the book takes place in Japan, but in fact it takes place in a fictional land inspired by Japan

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