This book is the prequel to Lian Hearn’s brilliant and beautiful Otori trilogy (there is also a fourth book, but although it’s still beautifully written I think it ruins the series). Fantasy has an (undeserved) reputation for being pulpy trash, full of adjectives and clichés. This series is top-notch literary fantasy. I will admit, it’s not high on action (the action scenes are well-written, of course) – but there’s plenty of intrigue and scheming and danger (the main character is trained to be an assassin, apart from anything else). I’ll also admit that it’s often difficult to sort out all the names – something I’m particularly bad at. There are long lists of names by clan and relationship at the beginning of each book, so that certainly helps.
The setting is inspired by ancient Japan, including (although it’s never explicitly stated) the persecution of peaceful Christian believers. Honour and courage are extremely important for the warrior class, and there is a different kind of honour for the Tribe – assassins with certain powers passed down through the bloodlines. Romantic love is a luxury that few can afford – least of all the central characters. But they fall in love all the same.
Reading these books is like walking into a particularly elegant Japanese screen painting – but with fantasy elements as well. I can’t recommend them highly enough.
Rating: M/MA (violence, including sexual violence – never gratuitous, but it’s there - if you love Japanese history and fantasy but want something gentler, read Sandy Fussell's Samurai Kids series).
Free sample (opening paragraph):
The footfall was light, barely discernable among all the myriad noises of the autumn forest: the rustle of leaves scattering in the northeasterly wind, the distant beating of wings as geese flew southwards, the echoing sounds of the village far below, yet Isamu heard and recognised it.