I don't usually read others' reviews before writing my own; I don't want to be influenced. With this book, though, I was having trouble putting my thoughts in order. A look through Goodreads shows a wide variety of reactions, with very strongly held and expressed opinions on both ends of the spectrum. (One single star review begins "This book is nothing other than a flight-of-fancy on the part of the author." Well… yes. Aren't all novels?) (Interesting: opinion seems to slant more positive on Amazon. I wonder if there's truth to what I read about the site deleting negative reviews…) My opinion is positive, though not rabidly so. I do wonder how I would feel about the book if I'd held it in my hands – but I listened to an audiobook, and this is what came of it.
The narration took a little getting used to. A stretch of the first several chapters is first person POV Tomasu/Takeo, read by Kevin Gray in a dry, light voice. What called for adjustments for me was the faint trace of an accent he used (or which he has); there was some part of me that was not quite convinced by it. This part of me became a bit bigger when a few chapters in the point of view switched to the third person to tell of Lady Shirakawa, Kaede, as narrated by Aiko Nakasone – whose name, however, certainly seems to support the accent; part of my resistance there might simply have been that I didn't want a change of voice. I did get used to it, and was very much enjoying both narrators by the end. Kevin Gray's reading of emotional moments was moving, and I loved the characters he gave voice to.
As for the book… A major, major drawback was the not-infrequent use of foreshadowing. One major character, a favorite of mine, was basically dispensed with a bit more than halfway through the book with a casual line about an omen of a grim future. (Exact quotes are difficult with audiobooks…I have enough trouble keeping my place.) I'm not happy about this. Maybe it's a good thing to be able to read something like that and know to start detaching myself from a character I've liked – but, really? I hate foreshadowing. The character was all but dead (dead man walking) long before the killing, and part of the story would have been much more gripping if I had had no idea whether things would work out or not. Then there was another character's "sudden but inevitable betrayal" – it was built up to, and telegraphed, and I think would have been far more effective as a shock.
In reviews, one of the divisive factors of this book is the use of culture. It's almost, but not quite, feudal Japan; it resembles feudal Japan. It isn't feudal Japan. (Which does make it odd that, among other things, an actual historical figure, the artist Sesshu, is referenced…) There are plenty of people out there who fancy themselves experts on the period who are jumping up and down in their reviews, the book made them so angry. (As well as people who are put out because the author is not Japanese…) I know next to nothing, so I'm untroubled – except by small, random things like words which in my experience belong to other countries entirely. "Palanquin", used frequently, is one which irked me every time it was said: to me, the word brings up images of India and elephants, and does not fit. There were others, but, again, audiobooks and exact quotes. I do wonder, though, where the line was drawn between historical novel and pure fantasy, and why. Hagi is a real place. Sesshu was a real person. But so much else was changed, names and histories; it's curious.
There is a strong undercurrent of brutality throughout the story, so despite the stated youth of the two main characters this doesn't work, I don't think, as a young adult novel – at least, it's not my idea of YA. I was surprised to see people refer to Nightingale Floor as such. The two main characters are very young, but there is no real "coming of age" story here; they have been forced into life as adults from the moment we meet them. Takeo is plucked from the life he has lived since birth and dropped into another, takes to it well, and there you are. Kaede has more of an arc, but her story could almost be that of any highborn female in any patriarchal culture; she could have been 25 rather than 15 and little would have changed, except for family worries that she was an old maid. Both of them could have been any age, and the story would have still worked. In fact, Takeo generally presents as much older, particularly with the level of skill he shows in just about everything – I kept forgetting he was supposed to be just 16. That is actually another drawback in the book: Takeo is just so incredibly good at nearly everything. There is very little learning curve for him once he discovers his skills – drawing, the tribal skills, even riding and writing once it clicks with him – everything but the sword, I think, and even with that it seems like his plateau is reached quickly. He is 16, and has never trained in art or martial skills before, but he is abruptly a master at most of what he attempts. Not good.
The romance is something else that is both loved and hated in reviews, and something else that is not quite what it could be. It begins with something like love at first sight, and I wish more had been done with that. The element of magic is so strong throughout the story that it would have made sense to bring it in here, as I expected, but it turns out to be just another case of L@FS. It seemed fairly obvious before the two ever met that they would, and that there would be romance: the two characters featured in the narration, of an age, and set to converge? Done deal.
There were parts of it I really liked. There were a couple of parts I hated. I probably will read (or listen to) at least the next book, just to find out what happens next, but I'm in no rush.
Rather more, with spoilers, is on my blog.