Samurai and Japanese feudal society are darn interesting, but add to that a mysterious cult, ninja-assassins with supernatural powers, cruel villains, beautiful sword-wielding women, an ominous prophecy, and an eye-opening role for a knitting needle. These are a few of the elements in the Tales of the Otori series by Lian Hearn (the pseudonym of Australian author Gillian Rubenstein). I have read her first three books, and she recently released a fourth in the series (which is on my MUST READ SOON list).
Rubenstein has a fascination for Japanese culture and spent years studying it. The language of the books is lovely and has a simple but elegant lilt, influenced by Japanese idioms, poetry, and art. The fighting scenes as well as the love scenes are gritty and intimate. The books feature a questing narrative, which is something I particularly enjoy—stories set in another time in exotic locations, with maps and many dangers on an arduous crusade. They are written from the first person perspective of the two main characters, Takeo (an orphaned young man with supernatural powers) and Kaede (the female heir to an ancient kingdom).
The books offer many contrasting themes: male vs. female, birth family vs. adopted parents, forgiveness vs. revenge, free will vs. destiny, feudalism vs. equality, etc. There are so many of these dichotomies that I can't list them all here, and they give the characters’ struggles depth without overpowering the intricate plot with pedantic moralizing. If you enjoyed “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” as much as I did, here’s the literary equivalent.
Tales of the Otori:
Book I: Across the Nightingale Floor
Book II: Grass for his Pillow
Book III: Brilliance of the Moon
Book IV: The Harsh Cry of the Heron