Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Harsh Cry of the Heron (Lian Hearn)

Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down looked like it would be the first target of my little online project, until I came face-to-face (literally, the character on the book cover fixed its unblinking stare at me from its temporary home on the shelf) with Lian Hearn’s The Harsh Cry of the Heron, the fourth book in her Tales of the Otori series. Later, I found that Lian Hearn is a pseudonym for two-time Children’s Book Council Book of the Year awardee Gillian Rubinstein (not that the name rang any bells in my admittedly limited mind). The Tales of the Otori have been my only encounter with Ms. Hearn to date.

I was a big fan of the series' first book, Across the Nightingale Floor. While I wouldn’t call her prose particularly inventive, I still think that she has found an ideal narrative voice for her tale. Her lyricism and attention to detail makes the most out of her chosen setting, drawing her reader into her fictional world. The Three Countries are Ms. Hearn's take on feudal Japan, retaining much of the elegance and mysticism for which Japan is known. It is against this backdrop that Nightingale unfolds Takeo's story with intimate familiarity despite its epic echoes; I felt as if I were hearing it straight from a scribe privy to Takeo's life.

Unfortunately, I was somewhat disappointed with the next two books. I felt that the story itself struggled to sustain its earlier drama, and despite the twists that Takeo's life took on, it no longer captivated me as much as Nightingale. In Heron, however, Ms. Hearn regains the tension that made Nightingale so appealing to me.

Heron pushes the Three Countries towards the brink of war, and Takeo's family towards their own demons. Here, Takeo and Kaede are no longer the sole movers of the story, as they are joined by their children: the heir Shigeko and the mysterious twins Miki and Maya. In a way, I feel that Hearn's real writing strength shows when she is seeing things from a teenager's point of view; Shigeko hooked me the way I was hooked on Takeo the first time I met him.

Heron's Takeo and Kaede, on the other hand, have grown thin and brittle. One is trapped by his secrets while the other is consumed by her anger. But events that are larger than the couple are at play here, and I must admit that I am a fan of the political machinations going on around them. I found that the battle towards the end, however brief, was effectively moving.

While the actual resolution of the Tales' events feels like some tragic afterthought (not to mention that certain elements that were introduced in this installment were not fully utilized and concluded), I felt it gave a more definitive end to the series than Brilliance of the Moon. (Ignorant that I was, I thought that Tales was supposed to be just a trilogy and bewailed the way the third book ended.) True, Brilliance had more pages of action and external struggle, but Heron gave me the edge-of-my-seat uncertainty that I had been looking for.

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