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Heaven’s Net Is Wide

by Lian Hearn

Hardcover: 560 pages – Publisher: Macmillan 2007- ISBN-13: 978-0230013971

There are a number of things that can, for no obvious reason, strike feelings of dread in a reader. This can vary from one person to another but a personal list would include books that feel the need for a map, a dramatis personae when it isn’t a play and genealogy charts. Heaven’s Net Is Wide contains all three and adds a subtle twist that would have made this list of ominous warnings even longer had we’d considered such a concept – yes, the book contains a genealogy of the horses. And then there’s its availability in adult and junior editions which also sets alarm bells ringing, coupled with a seemingly heavily indulgent page count. However, one should never judge a book by it girth or apparently gratuitous embellishments and Heaven’s Net Is Wide turns out to be one very good reason why. Although written after Hearn’s Tales of the Otori books, Heaven’s Net Is Wide is a prequel to these and acts as a standalone, an introduction to the trilogy and/or a closer examination of legends that are referred to in the previous books.

Shigeru Otori is heir to the Otori Clan in a feudal Japan made volatile and fragile by war and treachery. Although the clan is well regarded, with an ancient lineage, it is perceived as weak in the minds of the clan’s uncles who seek to manipulate or even plan the overthrow of Lord Otori’s capital in Hagi, whilst on the surface pledging their allegiance. Their reasons involve not only personal greed but fear, for the savage Tohan are seeking to expand their territory through slaughter and subjugation. Shigeru evokes the wrath of the Tohan when he kills a prominent clansman in swordfight and rescues another, Iida, Tohan heir, from death – something the impetuous youth despises, as he does all signs of weakness. Shigeru’s also has a headstrong younger brother to protect and must consider producing an heir of his own, although not with his mistress, the beautiful Akane. As civil war becomes increasingly likely the balance of power lies in the hands of a few clans who could tip the political situation either way. But what of The Hidden, a ragged bunch of pious pacifists who worship an alien deity, or The Tribe, mysterious unaligned warriors with apparently supernatural powers?

Despite its junior tag Heaven’s Net Is Wide is not a book that relies on simplistic cause and effect plotting or two-dimensional characterisation – it is truly an epic tale told, at times, from very intimate viewpoints. Although never gratuitous this is a blood soaked tale of honourable combat, treacherous slaughter and the massacre of innocents set against a backdrop of possible imminent famine. Neither does Hearn balk on the harsh sexual expectations and demands of the time, mixing passion with violence, tenderness with violation in a frank but never salacious manner – the matter of fact-ness of the tone emphasising the brutal realities of this time past. The attention to period Japan’s culture, food and religion shows a clear love of the country and its history, even in a fictional context. With all books that are ostensibly based in the real world, the little details – the food, the plants, the daily ritual – give as much flavour of the society as the more obvious trappings of samurai and geisha, castles and battles. To this end a small number of indigenous Japanese terms that may be unfamiliar to people crop up in the text, but add richness regardless. Similarly Hearn’s style of writing is very formalised, almost lyrical, giving the book the feel of something that has been passed down over the centuries and suitably reflecting the subject matter.

A page turner of an epic, Heaven’s Net Is Wide is an eloquent and fascinating novel full of passion and betrayal, spirituality and culture, war and lust.