In his second novel of the Tales of the Otori, Lian Hearn takes the story that could have ended after Across the Nightingale Floor and begins to explore the ramifications of the character’s choices. Lady Kaede, now free of the immediate prospect of marriage thanks to the death of Otori Shigeru, begins to grasp the reins of power for herself. Lord Otori Takeo, meanwhile, must fulfill his promise to the Tribe by entering their way of life and giving up his Otori inheritance.
Lian Hearn continues his practice of subtle suggestion through sparse description, rather than the more traditional detailed exposition or florid prose. The characters move in front of a backdrop cunningly painted by suggestion and shadow, their own feelings and interactions sometimes added by subtle coloration and at other times bold, strong strokes.
Although Grass for his Pillow is skillfully written, it falls short of genius. Part of that judgment results from its nature as part of a series; the rest from several shortcomings that, while visible only under close examination, nevertheless represent a lack of artistry.
On the book’s website, the author indicates that the first book came to him as a story unto itself, and it was only upon finishing it that he realized the characters had more to say about their lives. That division shows here. While Across the Nightingale Floor has, in truth, three main characters: Takeo, Kaede, and Shigeru, Grass for his Pillow only has the two. Shigeru’s destiny was completed in the first book, and the result feels somewhat like a tripod whose third leg is weak and prone to collapse.
Even in death (which occurred in the first book), Shigeru’s presence is felt strongly. His strategy remains the guiding force behind the main character’s lives, and the strength of the filial piety the characters feel towards their ancestors only makes the gap more apparant. As a storytelling decision, Shigeru’s death occurred in the optimal position for the first novel, but the remainder will suffer for the lack. (It should be noted that although Shigeru’s early death detracts somewhat from the story, it also serves to enhance the cultural depiction; the characters and their pseudo-Japanese society stop just short of ancestor worship in their devotion).
As with all “middle” books, how this novel is viewed depends widely upon how the series is concluded. Presumably that will happen in the third novel, Brilliance of the Moon.