Yes! This is one of my treasured finds of 2008, a novel that manages to do everything right.
(And yes, this review was previously published.)
Across the Nightingale Floor is a historical fantasy, set in a recognizable time and place, respecting the culture and conditions of the time, without trying to fit itself into the real history. In this case, the time and place is medieval Japan, an unusual setting for fantasy. Even the prose respects the Japanese aesthetic, simple and elegant and understated, where what is not said rings as loudly as what is said. It is not for nothing that silence is a recurring motif. Just on the basis of the prose alone, this genre novel raises itself to literary status.
In the first chapter we find Takeo fleeing the massacre of his village and running straight into the arms of a warrior lord, who saves his life and gives him a new one. The boy must try to reconcile the conflicting strands of his life: the compassion and forgiveness of the Hidden sect he grew up in, the demands of the warrior caste he is thrown into, and the increasingly urgent heritage of the Tribe, a hereditary order of assassins. This unusual confluence makes him a key player in the power struggles of the ruling clans.
Lian Hearn (a pseudonym) has done her research well, studying Japanese and making many trips to Japan, inhaling the culture and the landscapes and breathing them back out onto the page.
The characterization is also superb and complex and masterfully handled. Takeo and Shigeru, Kaede and Kenji are complex and compelling and live on in the mind long after the book is closed. Prose, setting, characterization: all show Hearn to be a master of the craft.
And for those of you who could not give two hoots about literary quality, let me assure you there is a well-crafted plot with enough action to satisfy the most swash-buckling. There is love and betrayal, brutality and compassion, conspiracy and deceit. And ninjas. Did I mention there were ninjas? Real live ninjas with greater than human abilities. That's where the fantasy comes in. The ending is not hackneyed and predictable either, although entirely believable.
This is the kind of book that I live to find, one that marries the best of genre fiction with the highest qualities of the literary. Lovers of either should be deeply satisfied. This is the first of a series, but stands well on its own.
Yes, I will have to buy all four of the other Tales of the Otori. How can I miss them after this?