I first encountered the Tales of the Otori series in college way back in the 2000s; I would often wander the college bookstore looking for reading material, and there it would be. As I was (and still am) an anime fan, I took a look at the books since Japanese-looking stuff usually caught my eye (though the author, Lian Hearn, is the pen name of a white Englishwoman.) Between classes, I would read the novels, always interested as to where it would go next.
I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I had purchased the third book from the campus store in the morning and finished all 300 or so pages that night!
The first book, Across the Nightingale Floor, tells the story of Tomasu, a man from a religious sect known as the Hidden. When he was a child, his home was destroyed and he was taken in by a local samurai, then given the name Takeo, which he used thereafter. There is also another character, Shirakawa Kaede, who rises through the ranks of the samurai despite being a woman (it helped that her home domain was matrilineal, though.) The two have to face off against the ambitious warlord Iida Sadamu before he lays waste to their lands. But another danger is the Tribe, a secretive group of ninja assassins who ply their trade with a peculiar and subtle sorcery.
This series has a number of things that really made it interesting. First off, you know who is a samurai and who is a ninja — even though neither word is ever used in the text. You quickly gather that the Hidden are in fact Christians, and if you know a thing or two about Japanese history, you would know who Kaede is modeled after. There is an eerie end-of-the-book omen in Nightingale, and an even stranger one at the end of Book 3. While the books aren’t wall-to-wall action, they do move along at a brisk pace and danger is never far away. And in Book 4, warrior woman Kaede is deconstructed to hell and back. These books held my attention well, exposing me to an interesting world of low fantasy and always making me hunger for more.
This series is a good way to spend your time and an absolutely triumphant example of cultural appropriation done right; I highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Japanese culture and likes their action mixed in with human drama.
And while you’re at it, pick up my novella Sword & Flower too.