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Book Review: Heaven’s Net is Wide by Lian Hearn

* Genre: Historical Fiction, Historical Fantasy, General Fiction
* ISBN: 1594483329
* ISBN-13: 9781594483325
* Format: Paperback, 576pp
* Publisher: Riverhead Books
* Pub. Date: September 2008
* Edition Description: Reprint
* Series: Tales of the Otori Series
* Author Website

Heaven’s net is wide but its mesh is fine.

Beauty, Grace, Eloquence. These words define the writing of author Lian Hearn. Her Tales of the Otori series of historical fantasy novels are extremely popular worldwide. Years ago, when Across the Nightingale Floor was first published, I was in a manga phase, where I thought I enjoyed manga and Japanese history based stories above all else. So I picked up a copy, since my local bookstore was featuring it. I admit, I didn’t like it, and eventually gave away my copy to my younger brother, who has actually been to Japan, and is an animator by trade. I never found out his reaction, but in the years since, the fact that I hadn’t finished this book has haunted me like no other book ever has.

Fast forward several years, The Tales of the Otori is now five books strong, and extremely popular. Heaven’s Net is Wide, the first and last book in the series, the prequel to Across the Nightingale Floor, arrives in my mailbox. Intrigued, I set aside all my other reading and dived in.

Heaven’s Net is Wide is a great place to begin the story. Because it is a prequel, Hearn has not assumed the reader has much knowledge about the setting or characters. She begins with a hook, describing a confrontation between two members of the Tribe, a family of assassins. Readers of the prior books will recognize the importance of this event right away, but for the new reader, Hearn begins on just the right foot, hooking them into the story.

The tale is set in medieval Japan, with some mythic elements, mostly in relation to the unique abilities of the Tribe. After that first chapter, the story abruptly shifts to the story of Shigeru, giving the reader the history of a character that plays a major role in the later books. Shigeru is first-born son of the weak-willed ruler of the Otori. Recognizing that his own son may suffer some of his weaknesses, that ruler seeks to train Shigeru to control his impulses. Shigeru is sent to learn from a sword master the way of the warrior. Upon his return to his father’s castle, Shigeru find himself embroiled in political intrigue, intrigue which will eventually lead to war, and the tragic consequences thereof.

The novel ends where Across the Nightingale Floor begins, leaving readers desperately wanting to finish the entire series.

Lian Hearn has captured the legendary, mythic aspect of story. Although told as a history, the story never drags or moves too quickly. Hearn slowly, subtly builds interest in her characters, her world, and her story. The reader is given time to grasp the strange culture in which the story is set, and is allowed time to tie his or her own emotions into the character of Shigeru. Told through an omniscient narrator, Hearn acknowledges what will happen, occasionally breaking the narrative to say that as a result of a particular event, this or that will follow. But it is a natural break, an obvious outflow of the narrator already knowing the later events. Yet it never reveals too much, nor does it happen often, perhaps only three or four times in the entire 500+ page novel.

Some readers may think that Hearn is trying to force too much information into the story. There is an awful lot of information, and because of the hints from the previously published books, there is a lot of ground to cover in Shigeru’s story. So some readers might find the story to full of information. But the reader should take into account that this is a prequel, and as such, is pretty much one large back-story. While it is never dull, it is essentially a history told as a novel, and so a lot of ground will be covered.

Other readers may dislike the positive attitude of the story to the religious sect of the Hidden. An obviously Christian belief, modified to fit Japanese culture, this sect fits within the historical context. It has been believed throughout history that the Apostle Thomas went into the East to preach the Gospel, and that he made it into the Asian countries, there to found Christianity. Hearn unapologetically uses the Hidden as a persecuted people of principles and morals. This positive take on Christian belief may offend some readers, especially as it is juxtaposed against the Buddhist cultural traditions of most of the people in the story. But it is important that the Hidden have a role in Heaven’s Net is Wide, especially as the primary character of the later books, Tomasu/Takeo, is one of them, and Hearn, I suspect, makes much of Tomasu/Takeo’s beliefs making it hard for him to do what he is later asked to do in Across the Nightingale Floor. In fact, at her website Hearn says that “Takeo’s journey is one that must transcend the constraints and beliefs of any one sect.” In Heaven’s Net is Wide, one character even has a conversion experience. Readers should be careful not to judge this a Christian novel, as Hearn is simply building on her knowledge of medieval Japan, and using the one religion that will not fit well into Japanese culture with its total ban on killing, as a motivator for the story. She is exploring the theme of spirituality in an extremely spiritual society.

The only thing I didn’t like about this novel was the easy way that every woman Shigeru meets seems to fall in love with him. It makes me think that Hearn (a pseudonym for a previously published author) may be a writer of romance in her other persona. The relative ease with which Shigeru gets women to love him is a bit unreal. This particular character trait also relates to the temptation to apply the label “Christian” to this novel. This is not a Christian novel per se, and in some cases there is sex, and even one case of homosexuality. Hearn never says these are wrong in any way, although a couple of them do have consequences that end in death. Shigeru is involved in all of these, and Hearn has not shied away from being detailed without being crass. Shigeru even keeps a mistress, who for a time provides another perspective in the story. Her character also becomes one the reader will care deeply about, even as we deplore her unfortunate actions.

The Tribe is what moves this story from historical fiction, to historical fantasy. Though the people of the Tribe play an important role in the life of Shigeru, they are mostly minor characters; and their magical abilities appear only a couple of times in the story. The later books are more intimately involved with the Tribe, but for Heaven’s Net is Wide the Tribe provides a counterbalance to Shigeru’s rigid understanding of honor.

I thought the character of Shigeru to be a positive character example overall. His understanding of honor and loyalty grows and changes over time. What begins as a black and white issue for him broadens into knowledge about shades of grey. His ability to grow and learn about these ideas based on the events that occur around him make him into a fallible hero. He is not bigger than life, simply wise and strong in the face of adversity, and we see why he becomes a mentor, an Obi-Wan Kenobi like figure for Tomasu/Takeo. The novel is one I would want to read with my Japanese culture obsessed teenager so that we could look at Shigeru’s character, the pros and cons of his decisions, and the way of life exhibited by this time and place.

Heaven’s Net is Wide is written so lyrically, so beautifully, that I didn’t want to put it down. Throughout my workday, I would think and ponder on the events surrounding Shigeru, wondering how he was going to deal with the onset of war, his turbulent love life, and balancing his devotion to the Otori clan against his own desires. Hearn’s story is so full of the alien, the other; the reader is transported away from him or her self. The primary themes of trying to understand the opposite roles of violence and peace and whether one must inevitably lead to the other are made to unfold in amazing ways. This novel is one you dive into, coming up for air only when you must. If you read no other book this year, you must read Heaven’s Net is Wide.