THE HARSH CRY OF THE HERON
Lian Hearn (Hachette, 2006) ISBN: 13 978 0 733621 26 0
The Harsh Cry of the Heron is set some 14 years after the close of the original Tales of the Otori trilogy. The story features Takeo’s three daughters to Kaede, Shigeko, Miki and Maya, and his illegitimate son Hisao, as well as Takeo and several other of the characters we met in the previous trilogy. Takeo and Kaede have a united the Three Kingdoms as co-rulers, protecting the Hidden from persecution and driving the mercenarial Tribe into hiding. Unfortunately, the seeds of conflict planted over the past 14 years are coming to a head. Takeo must tread carefully if he wants to maintain everything he and his wife have struggled for.
There are a lot of characters to keep track of in this novel. Unlike in the previous trilogy, Hearn focuses across various groups in the limited third person. This means that the tone is substantially different in this piece to Takeo’s reverie-like recollections. It also means that many of the characters introduced are not as evocative and lively to my mind as characters in the previous trilogy. I’m not certain how best to explain the feeling, but it seems Hearn commenced Across the Nightingale Floor with a very clear idea in mind of the characters and what happened to them. In The Harsh Cry of the Heron, by contrast, it seems the plot resulting in Takeo’s downfall was developed first, and the dramatis personae fleshed out later. I don’t have a clear recollection, even after several read throughs, of the characters of Shigeko or Miki. Whether it is something in the prose itself that distances the reader from the characters, or my own gutteral response to the deep change in tone of the story, I’m not sure.
The story definitely feels darker than the previous books. This is not so much because of the events of the novel itself, which are no more brutal than in the trilogy and reflect the realities of the setting. Rather, it is because there is so much animosity between so many of the characters. Takeo’s son Hisao, for example, is a self-loathing individual, abused by his foster father, and taught to despise his birth father. The character Shizuka, such an upbeat and exciting character in the trilogy, has had one of her sons turn against her, and has been worn down by age and grief. Kaede, too, dislikes her own twin daughters because of cultural taboos against twin children, and because of their Tribe skills. She is growing distant from Takeo as he becomes increasingly preoccupied with his business against the Tribe, and it is jarring to see how she has been transformed by motherhood and the events of the trilogy.
Throughout the novel, however, is a pervading sense of hopelessness as Takeo’s dream of perpetuating his legacy is chipped away by the machinations of his various enemies. It is entirely my personal taste to dislike stories about people who are clearly doomed. Whether through medical drama, crime, or politics, I don’t generally enjoy plots about the irrevocable degeneration of strong people in the face of unbeatable reality. Life has quite enough of that sort of thing without me needing to observe it in fiction. So, for that reason, I did not enjoy The Harsh Cry of the Heron. That, of course, is not Lian Hearn’s fault. I would most likely not choose to read this book again.