Across the Nightingale Floor – Lian Hearn (audio)

I don’t usually read others’ reviews before writing my own; I don’t want to be influenced. With this book, though, I was having trouble putting my thoughts in order. A look through Goodreads shows a wide variety of reactions, with very strongly held and expressed opinions on both ends of the spectrum. (One single star review begins “This book is nothing other than a flight-of-fancy on the part of the author.” Well… yes. Aren’t all novels?) (Interesting: opinion seems to slant more positive on Amazon. I wonder if there’s truth to what I read about the site deleting negative reviews…) My opinion is positive, though not rabidly so. I do wonder how I would feel about the book if I’d held it in my hands – but I listened to an audiobook, and this is what came of it.

The narration took a little getting used to. A stretch of the first several chapters is first person POV Tomasu/Takeo, read by Kevin Gray in a dry, light voice. What called for adjustments for me was the faint trace of an accent he used (or which he has); there was some part of me that was not quite convinced by it. This part of me became a bit bigger when a few chapters in the point of view switched to the third person to tell of Lady Shirakawa, Kaede, as narrated by Aiko Nakasone – whose name, however, certainly seems to support the accent; part of my resistance there might simply have been that I didn’t want a change of voice. I did get used to it, and was very much enjoying both narrators by the end. Kevin Gray’s reading of emotional moments was moving, and I loved the characters he gave voice to.

As for the book… A major, major drawback was the not-infrequent use of foreshadowing. One major character, a favorite of mine, was basically dispensed with a bit more than halfway through the book with a casual line about an omen of a grim future. (Exact quotes are difficult with audiobooks…I have enough trouble keeping my place.) I’m not happy about this. Maybe it’s a good thing to be able to read something like that and know to start detaching myself from a character I’ve liked – but, really? I hate foreshadowing. The character was all but dead (dead man walking) long before the killing, and part of the story would have been much more gripping if I had had no idea whether things would work out or not. Then there was another character’s “sudden but inevitable betrayal” – it was built up to, and telegraphed, and I think would have been far more effective as a shock.

In reviews, one of the divisive factors of this book is the use of culture. It’s almost, but not quite, feudal Japan; it resembles feudal Japan. It isn’t feudal Japan. (Which does make it odd that, among other things, an actual historical figure, the artist Sesshu, is referenced…) There are plenty of people out there who fancy themselves experts on the period who are jumping up and down in their reviews, the book made them so angry. (As well as people who are put out because the author is not Japanese…) I know next to nothing, so I’m untroubled – except by small, random things like words which in my experience belong to other countries entirely. “Palanquin”, used frequently, is one which irked me every time it was said: to me, the word brings up images of India and elephants, and does not fit. There were others, but, again, audiobooks and exact quotes. I do wonder, though, where the line was drawn between historical novel and pure fantasy, and why. Hagi is a real place. Sesshu was a real person. But so much else was changed, names and histories; it’s curious.

There is a strong undercurrent of brutality throughout the story, so despite the stated youth of the two main characters this doesn’t work, I don’t think, as a young adult novel – at least, it’s not my idea of YA. I was surprised to see people refer to Nightingale Floor as such. The two main characters are very young, but there is no real “coming of age” story here; they have been forced into life as adults from the moment we meet them. Takeo is plucked from the life he has lived since birth and dropped into another, takes to it well, and there you are. Kaede has more of an arc, but her story could almost be that of any highborn female in any patriarchal culture; she could have been 25 rather than 15 and little would have changed, except for family worries that she was an old maid. Both of them could have been any age, and the story would have still worked. In fact, Takeo generally presents as much older, particularly with the level of skill he shows in just about everything – I kept forgetting he was supposed to be just 16. That is actually another drawback in the book: Takeo is just so incredibly good at nearly everything. There is very little learning curve for him once he discovers his skills – drawing, the tribal skills, even riding and writing once it clicks with him – everything but the sword, I think, and even with that it seems like his plateau is reached quickly. He is 16, and has never trained in art or martial skills before, but he is abruptly a master at most of what he attempts. Not good.

The romance is something else that is both loved and hated in reviews, and something else that is not quite what it could be. It begins with something like love at first sight, and I wish more had been done with that. The element of magic is so strong throughout the story that it would have made sense to bring it in here, as I expected, but it turns out to be just another case of L@FS. It seemed fairly obvious before the two ever met that they would, and that there would be romance: the two characters featured in the narration, of an age, and set to converge? Done deal.

Spoilers follow… In 3 …

2 …

1 …

I made three notes when I got home after listening to the penultimate chunk of the story. One was: “Making love in a welter of blood with a corpse right nearby”. This is, in point of fact, what happens at the (pardon the sudden but inevitable pun) climax: Iida tries to rape Kaede; she kills him, and does it in such a way that she must be deluged with blood, and the bed as well. Takeo arrives to find her waiting for whatever comes next, or perhaps contemplating her suicide. A minute later they’re making love. Which in its way was fine; some reviews I saw out there made it sound like there was pitched battle going on in the corridors and the ceiling was on fire. That’s not the case, and the fact that these two very young and painfully lovestruck idiots fall into each other’s arms in a moment of relief and grief and other overwringing emotions does not bother me in the least.
It’s a moment of “yay” if you’re in a sentimental mood, or “about time” if you’re crankier. But then five minutes after, they put their clothes back on, and Takeo addresses his duty to bring the head of Iida to Shigeru’s grave, and he asks his new lover to stretch out the corpse’s neck for him by pulling the head by the hair. Ah, romance. Even that I could stomach, so to speak, until I realized the corollary. Takeo notes that there is little blood flow when the head is severed … Yes, that’s right, because most of Iida’s blood is all over Kaede and the bed.

“Ew” doesn’t quite cover that. That changed the love scene from either “aw” or “finally” to a macabre bit of grotesquerie. And makes me want to either be sick or take a shower.

The second note: The unimportance of the nightingale floor. It was such a neat idea: how does an assassin solve the problem of a floor designed to deter assassins and other intruders by singing underfoot? It’s elegant. And a big chunk of time and text was devoted to Takeo’s mastery of the replica Shigeru had made in Hagi. The shock when Takeo realized how very much bigger and more life-threatening Iida’s nightingale floor was was nicely done. He knew he would not have the days or weeks of practice it took him to learn to cross Shigeru’s floor in silence – he had a matter of a handful of hours to watch others crossing and try to map the sounds in his head. And the assassination needed to be that night. Whatever would he do?

Nothing. The answer to the question of how an assassin solves the problem: he doesn’t. Because the assassination was taken out of his hands entirely, in more ways than one, and he never had to try to make it Across the Nightingale Floor in silence. Basically, the building of the replica and all the time spent practicing on it was a foolish notion, and a complete waste of time. And so one of the props holding up the book, one of the most intriguing aspects of it, something a great many words were spent on in the course of the story, the referent of the title for heaven’s sake – all pointless.

(Takeo, Iida, and Shigeru do not get squiggly red lines under them – they’re in Microsoft’s dictionary; Kaede is not. Huh.)

My third note: “Kaede’s uselessness”. There are a couple of sides to this. First is how funny it is that although one of the first things this girl does in the story is kill a man who tried to paw at her, and one of the last things she does in the story is kill a man who tried to rape her, after which she fights her way out alongside Takeo – still, when I think of her it is as an appendage, an ignorant, unworldly, beautiful bit of flotsam. (That’s actually the perfect word for her, to me: “Wreckage or cargo that remains afloat after a ship has sunk”. Her ship sank, but she’s still afloat: not swimming, not sailing, but above water, drifting with the tide.) She is a girl-woman of her class and time, and – the three moments above excepted – she does absolutely nothing but run messages for those who have power over her, allow herself to be groomed or admired – and fall in love with the wrong man. She is timid, and uncertain, and ill when upset; some of the delicacy people expected of her was real and not a front or charade. Until the very end, she takes no action toward directing her own fate, and the action at the end is ineffectual. So those three moments are indeed exceptions, and they come out of the blue – apart from the one sword training session the reader is told of, there is nothing to give them grounding or credibility. It’s a similar issue to Takeo’s great skill at everything – in a realistically told story, it’s a fairy tale element. It just is.

In the end, it was a classic boy-meets-girl, boy’s-father-is-set-to-marry-girl, father-dies-leaving-girl-free, boy-makes-love-with-girl-in-pool-of-blood-but-then-puts-her-to-sleep-and-leaves story. There were parts of it I really liked. There were a couple of parts I hated. I probably will read (or listen to) at least the next book, just to find out what happens next, but I’m in no rush.

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One Response to Across the Nightingale Floor – Lian Hearn (audio)

  1. stewartry says:

    Postscript: (A couple of notes on “palanquin”. First, from the author’s website:

    Obviously the first thing is to do your research and to do this you need to know something of the language of the country you are interested in. I can’t stress this strongly enough. For me it’s the essential. You need to be able to read the literature and history of the country in its own language. Sometimes this is extremely difficult – in the case of Japanese for instance. Any effort is better than none. All languages construct and describe the world in a slightly different way: you need to know the idioms and every day speech of your characters, what common symbols mean to them, what their belief system is, and use words that are appropriate. For instance in a culture that does not believe in one Creator God, it makes no sense for one of your characters to say “For God’s sake”. Can alliances be “cemented” in a world that does not build with cement? In a pre-industrial world ideas can’t be electrifying nor can characters be galvanised. You need to look at every word you use and find alternatives for ones that sound too modern.

    Second, from the Online Etymology Dictionary: “a covered litter,” 1580s, from Port[uguese] palanquim (early 16c.), from Malay and Javanese palangki, ultimately from Skt. palyanka-s “couch, bed, litter,” from pari “around” + ancati “it bends, curves,” related to anka-s “a bend, hook, angle,” and meaning, perhaps, “that which bends around the body.”

    Portugal, Malay, and Java – not Japan. (Also not India, so sue me.)

    (I like the rest of the section from her site:
    Not only words, but the objects they stand for. History is many-layered and it’s often not easy to find exactly what you need to know. When were apples introduced into Japan for instance? Or cotton, or candles? I have an illustrated Japanese history book which helps me check on this sort of basic information – clothes, food, crops, armour, weapons and trade.

    I don’t like the convention of using a smattering of words in the language of your chosen country: ie if you are writing about France to have your characters exclaim “Tiens,” “Alors” or “Merci”, or in Japan “sumimasen” or “wakarimashita!” It doesn’t make sense to drop these words into a sentence in English. And often the words themselves are used incorrectly. Better to try to give the flavour of French or Japanese through the subtle use of sentence construction and idioms.)

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