Lian Hearn

(Photo: Screengrab from an Hachette Q&A)

Gillian Rubinstein went by the pseudonym Lian Hearn when publishing her series of books titled Tales of the Otori. The story is set in a fictional feudal Japan, and mostly follows the story of Takeo.

A young teenager, Tomasu, is away from his village picking mushrooms one day when his village is attacked. It is a peaceful village, and the people there follow a religion known as the Hidden. For this, they are persecuted and everyone in the village slaughtered. Tomasu escapes with the help of a lord, Shigeru, who happens to be passing nearby, though not before accidentally humiliating Iida Sadamu, the warlord who led the genocide against the Hidden. Shigeru knows that Tomasu is a common name among the Hidden, and renames the boy Takeo. In this way, Takeo leaves his name and childhood behind as he learns the ways of the world.

The Tales of the Otori span for most of Takeo’s life, though there are large, unexplored gaps between books sometimes. This is fine, this works well. Lian Hearn knows what works well in her story, and perhaps there was more before, but she needed to trim the fat. It doesn’t matter, the story works and it is engaging, exciting, and educational.

The setting has come under fire a lot. People have criticised Lian Hearn for not creating an authentic Japan, that it cannot be considered historical fiction, even with its mild fantasy themes. Honestly, I do not know much about feudal Japan so cannot really put my own arguments for or against here. I don’t think it’s necessary to the story to do so either. I have still learned many things from the Tales of the Otori, despite its potential inaccuracies.

I remember picking up the first book in the series, Across the Nightingale Floor. I believe it was under ‘Young Adult’ fiction, that very curious and nebulous genre that somehow persists despite its ambiguity. Whatever a young adult is, I certainly was not one – I was a child. But still, I read it. I thought it would be interesting; it sold itself as a story about magic and fighting and far off lands. What I got was not what I expected, and it frightened and disturbed me. But the very things that did this, also taught me very valuable lessons.

I learned about genocide from these books. I learned that there are people in the world who will readily extinguish the lives of thousands because of their religion or race. I learned that when those people died, the world was a much poorer place.

“They reminded me of the people of my village, their indomitable spirit in the face of disaster, their unshakable belief that no matter what might befall them, life was basically good and the world benign.”
– Lian Hearn, Across the Nightingale Floor

I learned about sexual assault and rape from these books too. I learned how frightening it could be to be a woman in a world dominated by men, and while I don’t pretend to understand this feeling to any great extent, the small boy who read these books found it greatly upsetting experiencing this kind of helplessness.

“I learned embroidery,” Kaede said, “But you can’t kill anyone with a needle.”
“You can,” Shizuka said offhandedly. “I’ll show you one day.”
– Lian Hearn, Across the Nightingale Floor

I also learned about the brutality of war and strategy from these books. I learned that doing the right thing was not always as easy as the fairytales made it out to be. I learned that sometimes, a small evil could prevent a larger one – this scared me more than anything.

“Don’t you know the man whose life you spare will always hate you?”
Lian Hearn, Across the Nightingale Floor

Lian Hearn may not have necessarily crafted an accurate representation of feudal Japan, and that is not for me to comment on regardless. However, she did craft an accurate representation of life in conflict, and I will be forever grateful to her for that.

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