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Two young lovers, Otori Takeo and Kaede, just want to be together. However, there are more important things at stake. Takeo, the leader of the Otori now his adopted father is dead, has unwillingly pledged his allegiance with The Tribe, of which his real father was a member before his death. The Tribe need his powers, most notably his ability to make himself invisible, and will kill him if he does not help them. Kaede, meanwhile, has inherited a relation's land, but, because she is female, must fight to keep them. She is of a non-Tribe clan and therefore cannot be associated with Takeo, even though she is carrying his child. The future of the lovers seems as though it must be separate - Takeo takes another lover and Kaede is being courted by a neighbouring lord. Is there any hope for them? Or are they doomed to never meet again.
This is the second of a collection of books about the Otori - a tribe of people in feudal Japan. Although the author, Lian Hearn (real name Gillian Rubinstein) is an Australian author who developed an interest in Japan and decided to set her books there, putting in a huge amount of research as a result. I'm not familiar with Japanese martial arts/fantasy books, but there are a few similarities with Chinese martial arts books of the Jin Yong vein - and it is for this reason that I read the first book in the series - Across the Nightingale Floor. That is quite some time ago now and I was worried that it would take a while to pick up on the story, which it did. For anyone who hasn't read the first book, it will be a bit of a struggle to follow what has happened before, but it isn't impossible for anyone who is so inclined.
The characterisation isn't really the best part of the novel. Takeo and Kaede, the main characters, have already been developed in the previous novel, during which they grew up, so there isn't much for them to do here apart from continue as they are. Takeo continues to be a rather mysterious character, which, considering his parts of the novel are told in the first person, is a little strange. Coming straight into this novel, he would probably seem rather flat and distant, relying on the action to keep him going. Unfortunately, his allegiance with The Tribe means that he is undergoing a period of strict training to hone his skills, which doesn't call for much action.
Kaede is supposed to be a rather pure young woman with the desire for her subjects to be happy - although she realises that several wars must be fought for that to ever happen. Again, she seems rather flat in this novel, with only the occasional hint of something deeper beneath the surface. This is just about enough to keep the story going, but a little more effort could have made her a much richer character. Her yearning for Takeo is a little nauseous and immature; then again, she is only just an adult, so that perhaps shouldn't be surprising. Anyone with a romantic streak in them will probably not have a problem with that side of things though.
It is hard to tell just at what age group the books are targeted. It is certainly adult reading - there are sexual references that young children wouldn't (or shouldn't) understand - so probably age 15 and upwards. However, it feels quite young, perhaps because of the naivety of the romance. The story is quite complicated, although it is a lot less complicated than the previous book, mainly because of all the alien names - all the characters, and there are a lot of minor ones, have Japanese names, and then there are the places to get to grips with as well. Thankfully, there is a character list at the beginning of the book which explains the relationship of all the characters and where they are based. There is also a map, which helps the reader to visualise everything.
With regard to action, this books seems to be a stepping stone between the first and third book, and nothing else. Whereas in the first book, it is all go from start to finish and there are a number of wars that take place in the third book, the characters seem to do little in this one except sit back and prepare for the way ahead. That is fine, every epic story has its slow parts, but it is a shame that they all seem to have fallen in this volume. That isn't to say that it is too dull to read, because it isn't, but anyone who hasn't read the first volume is probably not going to be all that impressed. It all depends on expectations. Although there are some similarities with martial arts stories, it should be noted that this is more of a fantasy story than a martial arts one - the 'skills' that Takeo learns are probably martial arts, but that isn't really discussed.
Although Lian Hearn isn't a native Japanese speaker and wrote directly in English, she has tried to tell the story with a Japanese feel. It is hard to describe just how she has done this. It is never grammatically incorrect, yet has the feel that it could be a translation - this is probably because the sentences are kept short and uncomplicated. This is perfect for the book - the Japanese names are going to bewilder a Western reader anyway and if the language was too literary, it would have been a struggle to get through it all.
Compared to an author like Jin Yong, which is probably very unfair, this pales into comparison. The richness of Jin Yong's descriptions are unsurpassed - and I'm clearly not the only one who thinks so. Nevertheless, this is a reasonable book in its own right, particularly when you consider that it is the second book in a trilogy. It is weaker than the first book, but, as mentioned, it really is a stepping stone to prepare the reader for what is going to happen in the third book, when all hell lets loose. I would really recommend starting with Across the Nightingale Floor, but if you don't, this is still a fair read. Three stars out of five.
The book is available from Amazon for £4.97. Published by Picador, it has 336 pages. ISBN-10: 0330412736.