I've heard much about "Tales of the Otori" lately. I've had a brief glance at this series in the bookshop, and since then every time I've asked a younger reader to name some of his/her favorite books, there would always be "Tales of the Otori" mentioned somwhere among the works of Pullman, Tolken, Rowling and others. I've always enjoyed YA fantasy and for this reason decided to give the first novel in the Otori saga a try.
“Across the Nightingale Floor” met my expectations – but admittedly, they were not set very high. The characters are the strongest point of the book; they are emotional, vivid and easy to sympathise with. However, this is only true where the main cast is considered, since the secondary characters seem somewhat pale in comparison. Apart from the ones that are strictly good and those that are strictly bad remain only the mercenaries (represented as diferent shades of grey), which provides for a poor assortment of characters. Even at the moment popular themes that demand the inclusion of the privileged upper classes is not included, and while that is commendable for the sake of not overusing the genre clichés, it sadly also means lesser variety between the characters.
Another thing that gives the book some credit is its unusual setting for a typical fantasy - that means that the scene is not a typical medieval imaginary world influenced by Western European culture, but rather a medieval Japan influenced world. This is pretty refreshing for a reader of fantasy fiction who is used to Anglo-Saxon myths; and for some reason, it also works wonders for some of the younger anime/manga fans. (Some of the older ones, on the other hand, despise any attempt at comparison between the two, claiming that ‘…she (Hearn) tried to be convincing, but didn't manage to do it, because the approach she took is too Western-style based’.)
The main flaw that bothered me is the fact that everything is so simple and undemanding of the reader throughout the book. The plot is completely straightforward; I can’t remember reading anything so thoroughly predictable in the last few years. There was only one turn that could be marked as ‘partly surprising’, and even that one left me completely cold – Hearn attempted to conjure an inescapable situation, but failed to do it convincingly.
There is some humour present in the story, but it left me nonplussed for the most part, with barely making me smile here and there (though I have to admit I burst out laughing at one part of the book that most definitely was not meant to be funny). It’s true that the novel could be described as a decent read in the end, without ever completely boring the reader. This is achieved by employment of a high tempo story-telling, but which is obviously a double-edged sword – the happening seems even less realistic and while in some books that’s a gain, it presents another flaw in "Across the Nightingale Floor". The plot itself doesn't help much as it is pretty conventional – it’s a typical story of a rural, uneducated boy, whose family is slaughtered and his village burned; afterwards he runs away to live with nobility, where he discovers his real heritage and the hidden magical powers he possesses - and in the end he becomes a hero. Oh please. Just because it’s a YA book, it doesn’t allow the author to get away with a crappy plotting.
As already mentioned, "Across the Nightingale Floor" is not a badly written book. The characters are likeable; there is an interesting romantic relationship between the two main protagonists and so on. However, this is the kind of book that are written for totally inexperienced or just undemanding readers. It’s a good beach read and recommended for those who are taking their first steps into the world of (fantasy) fiction, but experienced readers won't miss anything if they never come across "Tales of The Otori".
(1.5 out of five)