This week, we begin our read of Across the Nightingale Floor, the first book in the Tales of the Otori series, by Australian author Lian Hearn. Unlike other fantasy we’ve covered in these reads, this book takes place in a world inspired by Japan. It makes for a fresh, unique read and one I anticipate we’ll get some new and interesting bits of writing wisdom from.
At sixteen, despite his efforts to become a grown man among the Hidden like his stepfather, Tomasu cannot resist the call of the woods and the mountains. One day, when he roams off, his village is attacked by Iida, lord of the Tohan. The Hidden, a peaceful people, are butchered and their houses burned. Tomasu returns, stunned. While escaping the Tohan, he unhorses Iida, an unforgivable offense. Iida’s men chase him down, and a lord of the Otori comes to his defense and takes him under his wing. Then and there, because the HIdden are hated, Tomasu becomes Takeo and joins his fate with the Otori.
Reader Comments: Shigeru, the Otori lord who saves Takeo, is awesome. He immediately proclaims HERO by how he comes to Takeo’s rescue. I also love the internal complexity Hearn is establishing with Takeo, a boy raised among a pacifist people who now thirsts for revenge.
Writer Comments: This section had so many great things to learn from, so I’ll cover just a few.
1) The voice of the narrator, Takeo, was like a person telling a story, far more personal than usual. Unlike how first person is handled most of the time today, Takeo speaks from a place in the future, enough to address the reader with occasional insights that bypass the naiveté he bears in the current action. This illustrates that styles contemporary fiction might have abandoned still hold value. If Hearn had stuck with the narrator who knew only the present and past, Takeo would have come off differently and more childish than I think best suited to a fantasy audience.
2) Hearn jumped straight to the inciting incident, the moment where there is no return for the hero, where life takes a sudden change. Slightly less than two full pages establishing Takeo and his world pass before Hearn turns it upside down. This is a great example of how establishing the norm and a character can be done quickly and effectively without bogging the reader down backstory and explaining.
3) This passage is a great example of a writing style that captivates.
The village dogs were barking, as they often did at the end of the day. The smell grew stronger and turned acrid. I was not frightened, not then, but some premonition made my heart start to beat more quickly. There was a fire ahead of me.
Fires often broke out in the village: Almost everything we owned was made of wood or straw. But I could hear no shouting, no sounds of the buckets being passed from hand to hand, none of the usual cries and curses. The cicadas shrilled as loudly as ever; frogs were calling from the paddies. In the distances thunder echoed round the mountains. The air was heavy and humid.
I was sweating, but the sweat was turning cold on my forehead. I jumped across the ditch of the last terraced field and looked down to where my home had always been. The house was gone.
I went closer. Flames still crept and licked at the blackened beams. There was no sign of my mother or my sisters. I tried to call out, but my tongue had suddenly become too big for my mouth, and the smoke was choking me and making my eyes stream. The whole village was one fire, but where was everyone?
Then the screaming began. (page 3)
Notice that there is no analysis in this segment. There’s almost no internal thoughts. And almost no labeling of emotions. Yet the passage is highly emotional and intense. Almost all of this is conveyed through visceral, sensory details. Further, Hearn uses paragraph breaks and sentence structure to heighten the tension. This is a great illustration of the fact that analysis, lengthy internals, and emotion labeling are not necessary for an effective scene. They can, in fact, detract from the tension and impact.
Lord Otori (Shigeru as he is now referred to in the book) takes Takeo on a swift march across the country toward Hagi, his home. They stop in a town at one point, and Takeo learns from eavesdropping, for his hearing has increased dramatically as his tongue has died to silence, that these lands were once Otori before Iida conquered them. Further, a mysterious woman, Lady Maruyama, who apparently knows Lord Otori. She summons Takeo and tries to get him to speak. On his palm, she draws the sign of the Hidden. Lord Otori enters before she gets even a nod from Takeo, and the three of them share a special tea ceremony, which Takeo is unfamiliar with but finds like a sacred something between them.
Reader Comments: Most fantasy I read is Europe inspired, so a story set in a Japanese inspired setting is a refreshing change. It has an elegance to it rarely found in other fantasy I’ve read.
Writer Comments: Takeo is a boy raised among the HIdden, an isolated group unfamiliar with the wider conflicts of the world. Takeo is also the point of view (POV) character, which means that, as he discovers the wider world, so do we. This prevents Hearn from diving into long stretches of world building that feel tedious or out of place. There are many tricks to introducing readers to a new world, and having a point of view character who learns of it with the reader is one of them.
At last, Takeo and Lord Otori reach Hagi. People there react in surprise to Takeo because he apparently resembles Lord Otori’s dead brother almost perfectly. To his chief servants, Lord Otori delivers the next big shock of Takeo’s life, that he intends to adopt him. Takeo realizes he is part of a greater something Lord Otori has planned, but in love with the house, which sings when it rains, and loyal to the lord, he will do anything for the man who rescued him.
Reader Comments: I love the descriptions of this house singing as rain flashes through the gutters and over chains, of waterfalls, and streams. Lovely. Absolutely lovely. This book so far combines some of my favorite things in a story: intricate and layered characters, dark moments and undertones, and beauty.
Writer Comments: Because Takeo doesn’t speak, Hearn loses one of the biggest tools authors use to establish character: dialogue. As a result, she must compensate more with Takeo’s internals and observations of his world and the things around him. This, however, can be dangerous, as such things can easily drag down a story. But Hearn handles the challenge well because she reveals information from Takeo’s perspective only when it becomes pertinent. She also gives him such keen hearing that he experiences things so intensely and differently than most of us that it’s fascinating. If you must rely on internal thoughts and explanations, make them unique and interesting. Make them expressive of the character they come from. And make your descriptions unique and vivid.
Kaede, Lady Shirakawa, is the hostage of Lord Noguchi. (The Noguchi is the clan who betrayed the Otori and sided with Iida in the battle that forced the Otori surrender years before.) Kaede hates everything about the Noguchi, who treat her as a servant. Especially, she hates the men, for all the guards harass her. Only one man in the house, Captain Arai, treaters her kindly. One day, he leaves behind his knife, a forbidden act. Kaede takes it to him, but on the way, a guard assaults her. She stabs him with the knife, and when he starts shouting, Arai arrives and slits his throat. He informs Kaede that their story will be that the guard tried to rape her and he heard her and rescued her. Only then will they both be spared form the horrid penalties awaiting them if the whole truth regarding that knife got out.
Later, Lord Noguchi summons Kaede and places her with his wife. He exiles Arai, politely by informing him that his family and estate require him, and sentences Kaede to marriage. While she has escaped the life of a harassed servant, Arai, her one ally, is now gone, likely to be murdered on the way home for he plots rebellion against Lord Noguchi, and further, she knows Noguchi will marry her to a brutal man. Yet what can she do?
Reader Comments: Kaede is beautiful, that sort of beauty that awes. I know there are grumbles about fiction, especially fantasy, featuring only beauties, but particularly in a book with this much elegance and subtly, I like the beauty. I enjoy stories with gorgeous heroines, perhaps because I still have a part of me that dreams of being a lovely princess.
Writer Comments: In the last chapter, I praised Hearn’s lack of analysis, explanations, and internals. However, this chapter teems with them. So why might Hearn have chosen such different styles so close together? I can only guess at her reasons. However, the difference does accomplish a few interesting things.
1) It immediately establishes a difference between Takeo and Kaede. (Hearn also does this by putting Takeo’s chapter in first person and Kaede’s in third.) Especially because Takeo and Kaede have such similarities--isolated, fallen under tragic circumstances, keenly observant, self-appointed enemies of the Tohan--she needs to distinguish them in other ways.
2) Unlike Takeo, who came from simple origins, Kaede’s situation is complex, full of political intrigue, and the world she’s in intricate. Hearn had two choices. She could either write a long segment demonstrating Kaede’s situation and struggles, slipping in as much information through dialogue and sensory detail as is usually recommended for good storytelling. However, this section might have become weighty and tedious. Hearn’s other option was what she did: Summarize succinctly and thoroughly the heroines circumstances, covering the major political and social intricacies, and get to the action, the incident that alters Kaede’s life, and which forms the main event of the chapter. For each tool and technique of fiction, there are advantages and disadvantages. There are times to choose each and times to shy from them. The trick of a skilled author is to know and understand those times.