The Harsh Cry of the Heron: How a finale can undermine a series

The Harsh Cry of the Heron by Lian Hearn fantasy book reviewsThe Harsh Cry of the Heron by Lian Hearn fantasy book reviewsThe Harsh Cry of the Heron by Lian Hearn

Whilst it never gained the traction of the likes of Pullman and Potter, the TALES OF THE OTORI series has all the same ingredients: the epic scope, mystery and intrigue, impossible love and an entirely immersive setting. Whether it was luck or timing that never saw the series reach the same heights as its contemporaries, its same crossover appeal proves it is surely one of the great YA fantasy series. So how is it possible that Lian Hearn (pseudonym of Gillian Rubinstein) can undermine this entire sweeping epic in one fell swoop?

The Harsh Cry of the Heron (2007) begins sixteen years after the trilogy’s finale in Brilliance of the Moon: Lord Otori Takeo and his wife Kaede have ruled the Three Countries peacefully and have born three daughters: Shigeko, now of marriageable age, and two twins, Miki and Maya, both thirteen.

Yet that peace is about to be challenged. Akio, the leader of the Kikuta branch of the Tribe (the secret web of assassin families with supernatural skills) and Takeo’s greatest enemy, is after revenge. What’s more, Takeo’s brother-in-law seeks to unseat him from power by forming alliances with the emperor and the strange foreigners with their new religion and firearms. A lot of complicated political and personal intrigue ensues, as Takeo, his daughter Shigeko and his loyal retainer Hiroshi visit the capital to accept the challenge of the emperor himself.

At more than six-hundred pages long, The Harsh Cry of the Heron is Hearn’s most ambitious and complex novel in the TALES OF THE OTORI series so far. The characters are as compelling as ever, particularly the new additions of Takeo’s daughters: Shigeko’s secret love for Takeo’s retainer Hiroshi will have readers entranced, and the tragic coming-of-age of the twin Maya recalls the journey (and spunk) of George R. R. Martin‘s Arya Stark.

Four-fifths of the novel, then, are as immersive and intriguing as the original trilogy. Hearn proves herself to be a deft and masterful writer, weaving complicated plot strands through a beautifully described and evocative setting. Why, then, did the story seem to take such a drastic nosedive?

Whilst a happy ending is by no means required (or realistic), authors do have a certain responsibility to their readers — especially to the readership of a series of this scope and scale. The ending needs to be satisfying. It is true that Hearn tied up all the loose threads of the story, but only by apparently burning them all to the ground.

Not one character achieves the end that readers will have been rooting for. Love stories that had been built up and tension-fuelled throughout The Harsh Cry of the Heron are thwarted and unfulfilled. Desperate reunions end in death. Flaws are resolved through death. Death is the general theme of the novel’s finale. It was left on such an unhappy and unsatisfying note that readers will wonder why Hearn returned to the series at all.

The original trilogy could not come more highly recommended and despite a huge portion of The Harsh Cry of the Heron being a wonderful read, it is not worth the frustration of the ending. If fans of the series cannot resist returning to its world, stop reading at chapter forty-three if they want to leave with their faith in the world intact.

Published in 2007. The Harsh Cry of the Heron is the fourth book in the Tales of the Otori series by Lian Hearn. Don’t miss the related series, The Tale of Shikanoko. A dazzling epic of warfare and sacrifice, passionate revenge, treacherous betrayal, and unconquerable love, The Harsh Cry of the Heron takes the storytelling achievement of Lian Hearn’s fantastic medieval Japanese world to startling new heights of drama and action. Fifteen years of peace and prosperity under the rule of Lord Otori Takeo and his wife Kaede is threatened by a rogue network of assassins, the resurgence of old rivalries, the arrival of foreigners bearing new weapons and religion, and an unfulfilled prophecy that Lord Takeo will die at the hand of a member of his own family. The Harsh Cry of the Heron is the rich and stirring finale to a series whose imaginative vision has enthralled millions of readers worldwide, and an extraordinary novel that stands as a thrilling achievement in its own right..

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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One comment

  1. Oh, this is so disappointing to hear! But perhaps I’ll do a re-read of the original trilogy later this year, since you’ve reminded me how much I liked it.

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