Mythical medieval Japan never seemed so attractive as in this breezy epic, the first in a trilogy, about a boy with strange powers who gets caught up in a long-simmering inter-clan conflict.
The village is doomed, but British-born newcomer Hearn still makes you care about it and its inhabitants. In a preface, he admits using “echoes of Japanese customs and traditions” as he sets his action in a resolutely imaginary country where warring clans battle for supremacy. The village in question is in Dairyo country, ruled by Iida Sadamu, a devil in warrior’s garb, and many of the villagers belong to a secretive, Christian-like cult called The Hidden, which has aroused Iida’s wrath with its subversive talk of kindness. When Iida shows up to destroy the village, 16-year-old Takeo is wandering in the hills, though even then he would have been killed by Iida’s soldiers if it hadn’t been for the fortunate appearance of Shigeru, a lord of the Dairyo’s rival clan, the Otori, who was doing some wandering of his own and demonstrated his handy way with a sword. Shigeru spirits the traumatized boy back to Otori lands and adopts him after noting a strong resemblance between Takeo and his own late brother. It’s also revealed that Takeo is a member of an ancient clan of pseudo-magical beings with sorcerous ninja-like powers—useful during an assassination attempt on Shigeru. A secondary storyline follows 15-year-old Kaeda, who, since childhood, has been held hostage by an overlord who wants to keep her father, a less powerful lord, in check. Once a marriage is arranged for her to help cement a political alliance, her path and Takeo’s wind closer and closer together in a complex plot that Hearn carries us through with the greatest of ease.
What could have been a Shogun-like exercise in bloat becomes a rousingly muscular piece of romantic adventure, replete with shadowy assassins, fluttering battle flags, and doomed love.