ADVENT CALENDAR ’15: Re-reading ‘Tales of the Otori’

Tales of the Otori

Then: I was big-time hooked on this series. The desperately-waiting-for-it-to-come-in-on-order kind of hooked. A lot of the books I discovered in my teenage year were through luck (or the pull of good cover art) at the library. I went pretty much every week, and would always leave with ten books. Invariably, I read all ten in the week. I went through the three Tales of the Otori as fast as humanly possible (though if I recall, when I started, only the first two had been published, and I had to wait an agonisingly long time for the final volume.)

Tales of the Otori is set in a faux-feudal Japan a sidestep into a fantasy world. The protagonist, Takeo, has preternatural hearing, and can turn invisible. After the murder of his family by the villainous Lord Iida, he is adopted by Lord Shigeru and trained to be an assassin in order to exact revenge. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with Kaede, a beautiful hostage promised in marriage to Shigeru.

Even now, I’d be hard-pressed to name a YA fantasy series that does quite such acute world-building. The sense of the Japanese heritage that underpins it is radically different from a Western fantasy (the clans, the arranged marriages, the honour of suicide, etc.) and I remember Across The Nightingale Floor as a rich, thrilling adventure.

Now: It still is, though with some caveats. There are some oddities amongst the world-building that with ten years extra knowledge of Japanese culture (such as, for example, the single deity worshipped by the Hidden). Looking at some reviews after I had finished reading, it seems I’m not the first to notice, but given that this is fantasy and not history, this is pretty minor.

The second caveat is how exceptionally irritating the love-at-first-sight trope is. Kaede falls in love with Takeo the seconds she claps eyes on him, and it is their romance that is meant to carry the weight of all three books in the trilogy. Equally, despite murdering a rapacious guard in her first chapter, Kaede is startlingly weak and powerless throughout Across The Nightingale Floor, and the only true example of female strength, Lady Murakama, is murdered off-handedly in the finale in a manner not befitting the presence of her character throughout the book. The saving grace is that, if I recall, the second and third volumes somewhat redress the balance of this slightly sexist presentation.

The third caveat is that despite the above caveats, its still a damn good adventure, and the cliffhanger ending retains all the potency it did for me at fourteen. Sufficient time has passed that I have no idea what follows in the later volumes, and I find myself moved to continue re-reading the trilogy. (But still not moved to read The Harsh Cry of the Heron, a sequel of sorts that, by dint of being thicker as one volume than the entire preceding trilogy, can’t help but look self-indulgent on behalf of the author. Correct me if I’m wrong though.)

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