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Sunday, Oct. 20, 2002


When romancing medieval Japan, why stop at one?

ACROSS THE NIGHTINGALE FLOOR: Tales of the Otori (Book One), by Lian Hearn. Riverhead Books, 2002, 304 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

For over a century, Asia has been a rich and enduring source of inspiration for fantasy and science fiction writers. Since James Hilton created the fantastic Himalayan utopia of Shangri La in the 1933 novel "Lost Horizon" -- which emerged as a Frank Capra blockbuster film four years later -- the pace has never slackened.

Throughout the 1930s, eccentric and despotic Asians were much in demand by Hollywood studios. "Ming the Merciless," who locked horns with Flash Gordon in matinee serials, probably inspired Darth Vader of "Star Wars," whose menacing costume is unmistakably tailored to resemble samurai armor.

Another work that made the transition from book to the silver screen was "The Circus of Dr. Lao," Charles G. Finney's classic 1935 fantasy that was released nearly three decades later as the film "7 Faces of Dr. Lao."

As far as Japan is concerned, perhaps because there's something inherently melodramatic in the lifestyle of the samurai, these characters have lent themselves well to romances penned in English. Based, moreover, on the premise that if you do enough research on Japan to write one book then you might as well write two or three, it's fairly common to encounter sequels, two-volume sets and trilogies. Robert Shea produced a two-part romance about the Mongols and Japan in the 13th century, "Time of the Dragons" (1981) and "Shike: The Last of the Zinja" (1982). Then there's Jessica Amanda Salmonson's "Tomoe Gozen Saga," a trilogy published between 1981 and 1984.

Yet another author still active in this genre is Eric Van Lustbader, whose 1977 fantasy series, "The Sunset Warrior," led to his branching out to "The Ninja" (1981) and numerous other potboilers.

From 1998, Japanese-American author Dale Furutani produced his "Samurai Trilogy," consisting of "Death at the Crossroads," "Jade Palace Vendetta" and "Kill the Shogun." Furutani's trilogy takes place in the early 17th century and has the flavor and intensity of a Kurosawa movie epic, thanks largely to the protagonist's near-perfect emulation of a Toshiro Mifune character.

The book under review can thus be said to belong to an established genre, and, while it shares many characteristics of other works in the way it takes liberties with historical Japan, it contains enough dramatics and original twists to make it an appealing read. The book's unusual title, by the way, is a reference to uguisubari, floors that were purposely designed to produce an audible squeak whenever stepped upon, to announce the approach of a possible assailant. (The mafia at one time employed gravel driveways to the same effect in the U.S.)

Author Lian Hearn is said to have taken quite a bit of trouble to conceal her true identity, but word on the street says she is Gillian Rubenstein, a British-Australian and author of over 35 children's books. Her nom de plume is apparently borrowed from Irish-Greek novelist Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), the most prolific writer of things Japanese in his time.

The narrative is set in the mid-16th century, a period of bloody civil war. As it begins, Takeo, a youth who emerges as the story's protagonist, returns to find his isolated mountain hamlet of Christian believers under murderous assault by minions of the Tohan, led by the evil warlord Iida Sadamu. Lord Otori Shigeru mysteriously arrives on the scene, slays Takeo's pursuers, and takes the boy under his wing.

Although still unaware of it himself, Takeo happens to be a member of "the Tribe," a group of people somewhat resembling ninja, but with inherent supernatural abilities obtained through centuries of inbreeding. As you'd expect, these traits will come in very handy once trouble starts.

In a parallel story, a lovely nobleman's daughter named Kaede proves a headache for the family assigned to keep her as a hostage. She is betrothed to Lord Otori, perhaps in the hope that her reputed jinx -- men who get too close to her have a way of dying -- will prove Otori's undoing. Despite formidable barriers, her destiny becomes intertwined with Takeo's.

Is "Nightingale Floor," then, a complete fantasy, or a novel about medieval Japan? On a scale of 10 for Japaneseness (or, if you prefer, faithfulness to Japanese behavioral patterns in terms of the characters' attitudes and motivations), it would probably score an 8 or a 9. Certain aspects of the story are clearly products of the author's imagination, but they dovetail so neatly with descriptions from period novels -- attitudes toward women, for example, or the samurai trademark of stoic indifference to death -- that they fit the plot like the proverbial glove.

Two more titles by Hearn -- "With Grass For His Pillow" and "Brilliance of the Moon" -- are slated to follow. Ideally it makes sense to read them in the order of appearance. This is one case, fortunately, where you won't have to eat the whole cake to know it's good.

Mark Schreiber is a devotee of mystery and adventure fiction set in Asia.

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