The Harsh Cry of the Heron by Lian Hearn

Feudal Japan... with magic
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The Tales of the Otori trilogy, which began with Across the Nightingale Floor in 2002, has been one of the success stories of recent publishing history. Set in an island nation that shares the nomenclature, traditions and social conventions of feudal Japan, the books, pitched at the teenage market, crossed over in the manner of Pullman and Potter to an older readership that valued their ascetic lucidity of style, their light-worn profundity of research and their clean-lined narratives that mixed philosophical contemplation with powerful evocations of statehood, passion and war. Now Gillian Rubinstein, the prolific Anglo-Australian children's author who writes under the pseudonym Lian Hearn, has drawn together the strands that her trilogy left hanging. The Harsh Cry of the Heron, a sweeping conclusion to the Otori saga, closes matters in a style not far distinct from that of classical tragedy.

The story begins 16 years into the peaceful rule of Lord Otori Takeo and his wife Kaede, whose rise to power was documented in the previous three books. Takeo and Kaede have an adolescent daughter, Shigeko, now of marriageable age, and twins aged 13, Miki and Maya.

But clouds are gathering. Lord Otori's brother-in-law has opened covert negotiations with the devious Kikuta family, beginning a conspiracy to unseat the ruling dynasty and throw the provinces open to trade from the West. The family's young daughters chafe under their society's superstitious fear of twins, and both show aptitude for the secret assassins' magic of the Tribe, a ruthless underground society with members in each of the hostile clans. Otori rules in the shadow of two apparently conflicting prophecies: that his wife will mean death to any man who possesses her, and that he himself can only meet his death at the hands of his son. Though his family do not know it, he has a son, and the boy has grown to maturity in the house of Kikuta Akio, his greatest adversary.

Hearn's unfaltering control of this complicated plot extends over more than 600 pages of personal and public machination, in which the ties and duties of each family to its members are deftly counterpoised with the political necessities of their wider struggle for power. The moral atmosphere is chilly and remote and the austerity of style invests both the peripatetic story and its arresting set-pieces with a palpable sense of destiny at work.

It's rare, too, that such an extended narrative, especially one sustained over more than a single volume, plays out so gratifyingly. The Harsh Cry of the Heron builds to a climax that proves both fittingly cataclysmic and wholly satisfying in formal terms. Without any conspicuous cliffhanging it also leaves a way open to further instalments, though the author's next book, due in a year's time, is expected to relate the events leading up to the first book. The Otori sequence is already a considerable achievement. Cheeringly, it looks as though it will only get better.