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Across the Nightingale Floor: Tales of the Otori

April 13, 2010

There’s an unwritten rule in the zombie flick genre that you’re not allowed to use the z-word.  Call them anything else you like, revenants, unmentionables, the infected, the restless dead, but they are not – are not – zombies.  Because to call them zombies would be to acknowledge that you’ve got zombies in your movie.

Something like that is going on in Across the Nightingale Floor: Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn.  Takeo is a freaking ninja.  Sure, in the context of the story, they say he’s a member of the Tribe, a nomadic people who dress in black and perform political assassinations for people.  Maybe Hearn wants to escape the stigma of writing a book about ninjas.  But you know what?  That’s okay.  Takeo is so cool, and the book is so well written, that I don’t much care what he calls him.

Takeo grew up in a peaceful farming village with his mother and stepfather.  When this village gets sacked by the evil bad guys, he’s taken in by a mysterious stranger, learns some surprising things about who his real father was, and goes into secret ninja training to defeat the evil overlord.  This plot may sound a little familiar.  But it’s spiced up with some delicious political machinations (you may find it helpful to take notes) and a writing style that sucks you into Takeo’s world.  Just check out these lines from the opening page:

But when I did get back, muddy from sliding down the hillside, bruised from fighting, once bleeding great spouts of blood from a stone wound to the head (I still have the scar, like a silvered thumbnail), there would be the fire, and the smell of soup, and my mother’s arms not tearing me apart but trying to hold me, clean my face, or straighten my hair, while I twisted like a lizard to get away from her.

Across the Nightingale Floor is a vision of a Japan that never was.  You can practically smell the persimmons and the frying eels.  There’s an intense psychological realism, both for Takeo and his love interest, the lady Kaede.  The end leaves several issues hanging, so now I want to get my hands on the other two books in the trilogy.

And did I mention that there are ninjas?

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