For those who missed the last review, Tales of the Otori tells of Takeo, who is rescued from his village's massacre and adopted by Lord Otori Shigeru into the Otori family. Takeo hones the talents he inherited through his kinship with the mysterious Tribe, as well as fighting skills he learns from Shigeru and other teachers, discovering an entirely different life from what he knew as a child. Shirakawa Kaede, initially a pawn on a political chessboard, and Takeo fall in love, even as she is used to betray Shigeru and the Otori. Grass for His Pillow picks up where Takeo has left Kaede, and this story is told through the eyes of both protagonists. Kaede, returning to her ruined home, climbs the ladder to power as the heir to a family of an ageing father with his young daughters, in a world where women are merely payment for alliances between clans. Meanwhile, Takeo hides from his enemies, and further trains his abilities with those who are familiar with them. He yearns for vengeance for Shigeru, and to claim his right as Shigeru's son and leader of the Otori.
What sets apart this whole series is the use of a mythical Feudal Japan as a backdrop, incorporating a smooth blend of fantasy and history. A minute detail such as a man cutting off another's head without hesitation, yet rescuing moths from a flame with care, emphasises the individual so uniquely that it's admirable. Lian Hearn uses the time in this second book to develop her characters, so all the little details missed out in the fast-paced Across the Nightingale Floor are gradually covered, creating a more believable persona for the lesser characters as well. It's an important feature when a story consists of only a small number of separate personalities.
The politics in the story are well thought-out and executed with precision, so the shifting allegiances are viewed with surprise at every turn. The fights are intriguing, although sometimes it's necessary to scramble to avoid getting lost. For a story which uses fantasy as a baseline genre, it's not as descriptive as it should be, so it can be hard to figure out what exactly just happened. A minor detail, considering the excessively descriptive nature of Lord of the Rings.
Grass for His Pillow is slower than its previous installment as second books are wont to be, but it's hard to lose interest in the tremendous power plays, internal and external, within and between families. It's quite clear that this book is developing the tale, sizing it up for an epic end to the series with the final installment.