Correction–I’ve been reading more books than ever. Sometimes up to a dozen a day. But they have titles like “The Best Mouse Cookie” and “Rosie’s Walk,” “This Rabbit, that Rabbit” and “Good Night Moon.”
I mean, I’m all about the cow jumping over the moon, the light and the red balloon–even, in fact, the bears on chairs and the kittens and mittens. But the main pleasure there isn’t as much the stories as the small fuzzy head leaned against me and the small fat hand turning the pages, the little index finger pointing enthusiastically at the trendy rabbit and the bendy rabbit . . . aaaah.
Anyway, for a walloping good story I need to go elsewhere. One of my coworkers recently recommended a series called Tales of the Otori. Since this was the same guy who had recommended Gail Tsukiyama and Peace Like a River (which are a-mazing), I knew this series had to be good. Starting with “Heaven’s Net is Wide,” within a matter of chapters I was drawn into an incredible world. Set in something like medieval Japan, the author Lian Hearn has made a rich, fully encompassing backdrop for an epic story which I do not want to ever, ever end. The details are vibrant, the language poetic, and the plot surprising. Many times I thought, “oh, this is where she’s taking the character.” And then I was wrong–oh so wrong.
The basic story: Otori Shigeru is the heir to his kingdom. However, after the cruel ruler of the country to the East conquers him in a battle won by treachery, the Three Countries are submerged in a dark, violent time. Shigeru adopts an attitude of defeated submission and waits patiently for many years until the time when he can reclaim his inheritance. As he secretly plans his revenge, he adopts a youth named Takeo, who has been brought up among the Hidden, a spiritual people who denounce killing of any kind and worship a God whose name they do not speak. But Takeo also has Tribe blood in his parentage. The Tribe is a clan of spies and assassins with extraordinary skills, who hire themselves out to the warlords and embrace lives of violence and betrayal for their own gain. With these two conflicting identities battling in him, Takeo becomes the key to Shigeru’s plan to rescue his people from tyranny and kill the man that brought about his downfall, Iida Sadamu. Sadamu, in fear of assassination attempts, has surrounded his chambers with a nightingale floor, constructed to sing at the fall of every human step.
There are elements of fantasy–people of the Tribe with super-acute hearing, the ability to become invisible for minutes at a time and that type of thing–but in a restrained manner so that you find the whole thing totally believable. There is love, revenge, beauty and squalor, and the story carries you through multiple generations of the Otori family. There is some sex but it’s never (in my opinion) gratuitous. There’s some violence too, but also not gratuitous as I sometimes found it in books like The Pillars of the Earth.
I’m just beginning the final book in the series, “The Harsh Cry of the Heron,” and I’m already mourning the end.