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Friday, September 7, 2007

"Heaven's Net Is Wide" by Lian Hearn

Order "Heaven's Net Is Wide" HERE
Read An Excerpt HERE

Perhaps it’s because of my oriental background—my mother is Korean, my dad half-Japanese—but I’ve always been a fan of Asian storytelling such as anime, martial arts flicks or the recent wave of Asian cinema that has been making its way stateside including “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “Hero”, “House of Flying Daggers”, “Infernal Affairs” (was remade into The Departed), “Oldboy”, the Ring/Grudge franchises, et cetera. Whatever the reasons, I was immediately drawn to Lian Hearn’sAcross the Nightingale Floor” and have immensely enjoyed its subsequent sequels—“Grass For His Pillow”, “Brilliance of the Moon” and “The Harsh Cry of the Heron”. So when I heard about the fifth and final volume in the Tales of the Otori series, I was understandably excited, that is until I learned that “Heaven’s Net Is Wide” was to be a prequel. In my experience, prequels, more times than not, fail to live up to the originals – Stars Wars anyone – so I had my doubts about the book. Thankfully, my fears were unfounded as “Heaven’s Net Is Wide” is another wonderful entry in the series.

For the uninitiated, Ms. Hearn’s Tales of the Otori can be best described as ‘historical fantasy’ and takes place in the Three Countries, a medieval setting that borrows from both Japanese history and mythology. Of the former, a feudal society is in place with each fiefdom governed by a certain clan, which in itself is divided into certain castes like the warrior class, farmers, peasants, and merchants, while the women are a victim of male dominance and the religions are influenced by Buddhism & early Christianity. For fantasy lovers, the series features the Tribe, a secret organization of warriors/assassins/spies who are based on ninjutsu (ninja) and possess superhuman abilities such as invisibility, projecting a phantom image, the Kikuta sleep, and super hearing. As far as the story, the plots usually feature themes of tragic romances, honor, betrayal, vengeance, deception, fate, inheritances, religion and politics that can be found in different forms of oriental storytelling. Finally, regarding the writing, Ms. Hearn’s prose is eloquent and beautiful; the worldbuilding is vivid, meticulously researched and realistic; and the storytelling is both intimate & epic.

As mentioned above, “Heaven’s Net Is Wide” is a prequel, taking place around seventeen years before “Across the Nightingale Floor” and is the perfect starting point for readers new to Lian Hearn and the Tales of the Otori. In the book, readers will get to follow Shigeru from a twelve-year old boy until his fateful meeting with Tomasu at the beginning of “Across the Nightingale Floor”. In between, readers will get to intimately know the heir to the Otori clan—watching Shigeru grow into a man, experiencing his loves & joys, suffering his defeats & tragedies, learning from his mistakes, meeting his friends, alliances & enemies, and watching his plan for vengeance unfold. Of the larger story, “Heaven’s Net Is Wide” deals with the threatening war between the Otori and Tohan clans as well as treachery, Tribe politics and the rising influence of the “Hidden”… In short, even though there’s a ton of information to process—numerous characters, places, and customs (a map and character index should help if provided)—I believe “Heaven’s Net Is Wide” is an excellent place for readers to start the Otori series, even more so than “Across the Nightingale Floor”. Of course, I also feel the book is the perfect complement to those who’ve already read the other four Otori books :D (NOTE: New Lian Hearn readers may want to skip the next paragraph in order to avoid any SPOILERS!)

For myself, I fall in the latter category and I absolutely loved “Heaven’s Net Is Wide”, which was rewarding on so many different levels. First and foremost, Shigeru was a favorite character of mine from “Across the Nightingale Floor” and getting to experience the expanded version of his story—getting trained by Matsuda Shingen, falling in love with Lady Maruyama, the tragic Battle of Yaegahara, the fate of his concubine Akane, befriending Muto Kenji, putting together the list of Tribe members, the death of his younger brother Takeshi, et cetera—was especially gratifying. Just as special were all of the little references to the later Otori books like the legend behind the stone bridge in Hagi, learning where the horses Raku & Kyu originated from, and meeting early versions of such characters as Tomasu (Takeo), Iida Sadamu, Kaede, Kikuta Kotaro, Yuki, Shizuka, Arai Daiichi, Terado Fumimasa and Fumio, etc., who all play such an important role in the overall saga. Even more impressive is that even though the book is a prequel and some of the outcomes are already known beforehand, it’s impossible not to sympathize with the characters and to be drawn into their unfolding dramas. This is mostly due to Ms. Hearn herself who is just a fabulous writer & storyteller, and I feel that “Heaven’s Net Is Wide” is some of her best work.

Because of my background I might be a little prejudiced towards the Tales of the Otori, but I truly believe the series is a literary accomplishment and despite my initial worries, “Heaven’s Net Is Wide” turned out to be one of the strongest entries in the saga—probably my favorite right up there with “Across the Nightingale Floor” & “The Harsh Cry of the Heron”—and I have no hesitation in recommending this book to readers whether you’ve been following the series or not. In the end, Lian Hearn’sHeaven’s Net Is Wide” is a triumphant conclusion – or beginning – to the magnificent Tales of the Otori


Calibandar said...

A book that, like The Book of Joby, I'd been looking forward to ever since I first saw it listed on Amazon at the start of 2007. Immensely excited about this one, I love thr rivalries between the clans, the training of the Samurai warriors, the feel of tragedy that tehe story has, the atmospheric setting. One of the best new books this year I'd think.

Robert said...

Definitely a great read :D It'll probably be among my favorites by the end of the year...

Saint Narcissus said...

I am reading Harsh Cry, which is the first Hearn book I have read. I really love it, and will likely begin with Heaven's Net is Wide to read the whole series. I find myself wishing constantly that she would include a map of the eight islands. There is so much travel and movement of characters that it would really help me live in the story a bit better, like with Lord of the Rings and the great Middle Earth maps. Anyone know if such a map is available?

Zoe said...

I'm about to read Heaven's Net Is Wide. Ahhhh D: alot of pages xD

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