Lian Hearn, Across the Nightingale Floor (Riverhead Books, 2002)

The Nightingale Floor
Persimmon gleams temptingly
Bitter-bland within

Across the Nightingale Floor is part one of a trilogy set in feudal Japan and featuring swordfights, secret Christians, conflicts of honor, unusual methods of torture, young love, martial artists posing as dainty handmaidens, assassinations, floors designed to prevent assassinations by squeaking when they're stepped on, and a clan of super-powered ninjas.

It's clearly possible to take such delicious ingredients and make them into a bad book by laying on the melodrama without enough flair to compensate, or burying its scenes in clunky and overwrought prose. But until I read Nightingale Floor, it never occurred to me that such a rich setting and juicy parade of events could be made boring.

Yes, boring. Dull. Flat. Totally uninteresting. A samurai snoozer. Keep this in mind as you read about the plot, because you, like me, will find its soporific qualities hard to believe as you do so.

Tomasu is a teenage boy who lives with his mother and step-father in a peaceful Japanese farming village. But his life is not what it seems. His community is a Christian enclave which practices its religion in secret, knowing that the price of exposure is death.

One night the village is discovered and put to the torch, and everyone but Tomasu is massacred. The fleeing boy encounters Lord Otori, who rescues and adopts him, and re-names him Takeo. As Takeo adapts to his new life, he becomes embroiled in intrigue, and discovers dramatic secrets about his father and his own developing supernatural abilities.

Meanwhile, a beautiful girl named Kaede is held hostage by the evil Lord Noguchi, who is a sworn enemy of Lord Otori. Kaede sees no hope for any life but a forced marriage to some old retainer, but everything changes when she gets a handmaiden with more skills than embroidery.

Kaede and Takeo's lives are linked by their relationships with the rival lords and a secret clan of illusion-projecting, body-splitting, super-strong ninjas. They fall in love. But both have conflicting claims on their loyalties, and harsh duties they are honor-bound to fulfill before they can be together. And meanwhile, a lord who needs killing sleeps in a room protected by an assassin-proof nightingale floor....

That summary is considerably more interesting than the book itself. Rarely have such promising leads been so profligately wasted. The writing style is largely to blame. Hearn adopts an spare, understated prose which is undoubtedly intended to echo the elegant austerity of a haiku, a shoji screen, or a Zen garden. But her prose is plain where it should be evocative, and flat where it should be moving.

Hearn throws out a few references to autumn leaves, but fails to describe the fan-shaped delicacy of a yellow ginko leaf, or how maples in November are such a blaze of varied colors that they're shocking in their beauty. She only occasionally bothers to mention what her characters are eating when they sit down to a meal, ignoring the exotic value of Japanese food before the invention of sushi. Her fight scenes are so stripped to the bone that they lose all excitement and pathos.

Worse yet, her characters are enigmas. Takeo's Christianity is set up and then ignored. How does he feel about having his name changed and his identity erased? We're not told. What is his training like, as he learns to use strange powers he never knew he had? It's skipped over. Perhaps most egregiously of all, Takeo learns to split himself into two people ... off-page.

The other characters are even less developed, if that's possible. It's 287 pages of hollow people wandering through a featureless landscape.

Lian Hearn (an obvious nod to the expatriate Lafcadio Hearn, who wrote a number of books on Japan) is a pseudonym for Australian YA (young adult) author Gillian Rubinstein. Her most well-known (and best) novel under her own name is the goofily titled Galax-Arena. The latter book, about a group of children kidnapped and forced to perform dangerous acrobatics, is hampered by a premise which is somewhat silly to begin with and turns out to be even sillier when it's fully explained at the end. But the emotional content is powerful, and the dog-eat-dog society of desperate children is plausible and chilling.

Gillian, Gillian, where did you go wrong? Did you lose your heart when you changed your name? Is the metamorphosis of Tomasu into Takeo and subsequent loss of any vestige of personality a metaphor?

Across The Nightingale Floor has already been optioned for film, so perhaps she's laughing all the way to the bank. But anyone who wants to read a good fantasy set in Japan would do better to seek out Kij Johnson's sensual The Fox Woman or Kara Dalkey's watercolor-textured duo Little Sister and The Heavenward Path.

Nightingale Floor has a gorgeous cover and sure sounds like fun, but it's an embroidered sheath with no sword inside.

[Rachel Manija Brown]