Return of the Patriarch

Lian Hearn's literary fantasies follow the violent adventures of the Otori.
Lian Hearn's literary fantasies follow the violent adventures of the Otori. (Itaru Hirama/getty)
By Reviewed by Elizabeth Ward
Sunday, August 26, 2007


The First Tale of the Otori

By Lian Hearn

Riverhead. 484 pp. $26.95

Nobody should need to ask who the Otori are by now. Scions of an imaginary, quasi-Japanese feudal clan, they've made a big splash in the small realm of literary fantasy since Lord Otori Shigeru first hove into view in Across the Nightingale Floor (2002). That book, which plunged readers into an exceedingly violent, rivetingly elegant world, was followed in short order by three more, all with equally poetic titles: Grass for His Pillow, Brilliance of the Moon and The Harsh Cry of the Heron. The Otori found themselves with a following. There's been talk of a movie. Now, "Star Wars"-like, the series gets a prequel.

This is good news across the board. Fans of the noble Shigeru, who was gruesomely dispatched at the end of Nightingale, should get a kick out of being transported back several decades to witness his childhood, youth and romance with winsome Lady Maruyama, as well as the battle of Yaegahara -- the Otori's Waterloo -- which casts its shadow over the entire series. Readers who forgot about Shigeru after his adopted son, Takeo, took center stage, will be jolted into a fresh understanding of Takeo's troubles. And those who wouldn't recognize an Otori if they fell over one have the satisfaction of knowing that if they enjoy Heaven's Net Is Wide, they don't have to wait around for the rest of the saga.

There is, in fact, much to enjoy. Lian Hearn (a pseudonym for Gillian Rubinstein, a British-born Australian who made her reputation with fantasies for younger readers) is a serious student of Japan. She has lived there, immersed herself in its history and culture and reportedly learned its difficult, elliptical language. That pen name is surely a nod to the ultimate Japanophile, a 19th-century writer who became a Japanese citizen, Lafcadio Hearn. Her feeling for the place and its past is apparent here, as in all the books, in numerous little touches: "the drone of the cicadas, the constant sound of summer," winter roads icy underfoot, fermented bean paste and foaming green tea, lantern-hung boats and silk-smooth temple verandas, bush clover and camellias, and the ever-looming "plum rains." Even if, as Hearn insists, neither the setting nor the period of the Otori books represents an actual historical era, the customs and traditions, landscapes and seasons are those of Japan. And she has gotten them right.

Not just the pretty stuff, either. Hearn doesn't shy away from old Japan's dark side. Early on in Heaven's Net, a master stonemason is sealed alive in the parapet of his own magnificent bridge to placate a river god. Members of "the Hidden," a persecuted, Christian-like sect, are suspended upside down above fires and ever-so-slowly roasted to death. Heads and limbs fly: Young Shigeru "was amazed at how easily the blade slid through clothing and flesh, how it whipped back and cut again, this time into the top of the neck as Miura fell forward." Capping the mayhem is a set-piece clash on the plain of Yaegahara, Hearn's persuasive version of the battle of Sekigahara that lofted the Tokugawa to power over the Toyotomi in 1600: "the screams of men and horses, the sigh and clack that preceded another deadly shower of arrows, the shouts and grunts that accompanied the heavy labor of slaughter."

Then there's the interwoven thread of magic. Besides delving into Shigeru's past, Heaven's Net sheds more light on "the Tribe," the clan of ninja-like beings of superhuman abilities on whom much of the saga's intricate plot will eventually turn. Readers might be of two minds about the Tribe, depending on their tolerance for fantasy. "The other world of goblins, ghosts and inhuman powers" that it represents can seem jarringly at odds with the solid, human world Hearn has so lovingly imagined. At the same time, though, it has its own roots in tradition. Few things are more Japanese than the shivery perception of otherworldliness, of those moments when "the membrane between the two worlds thinned and one rolled into the other." Hearn has that right, as well.

Too much should not be claimed for the Otori chronicles, mind you. While Hearn can clearly command a nice phrase, she also has a weakness for melodrama and platitude -- and when she indulges them, her prose can turn as stiff as a kimonoed warrior on a painted screen. " 'The past is all around us,' Matsuda replied. 'And the future.' " "The dignity of his passage was somewhat marred by the frenzied behavior of the townsfolk." "Rage seemed to lick his gut with its molten tongue." There's not much humor in Heaven's Net. It also takes some patience getting into the story through the thicket of name-clotted passages such as this: "The routine of study and training continued. Shigeru and Kiyoshige were joined by the two sons of Kitano Tadakazu, Tadao and Masaji." Who are these people?

Still, the life of a feudal Japanese clan lord really was a somber, clotted affair. Stick with this book. By the end, those blank names -- and dozens of others -- might be as resonant to you as your own family's. �

Elizabeth Ward, who writes Book World's "For Young Readers" column, lived in Japan from 1992 to 2001.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company