A novel by Lian Hearn, book one of Tales of the Otori.
Lian Hearn is actually a pseudonym for the popular children's author Gillian Rubenstein; the Otori trilogy is her first publication in the fantasy genre.
Across the Nightingale Floor was released in September 2002, and the other two books in the trilogy, Grass for His Pillow and Brilliance of the Moon are scheduled for September 2003 and 2004 respectively.
As you can probably guess from the nightingale floor reference in the title, this story takes place in a world derived from feudal Japan, in a similar way to which The Lord of the Rings takes place in a world derived from Middle Ages Britain. The names, landscapes and philosophies, and the cultural blend of honour, intrigue and savagery all give the setting a very Japanese feel.
Our protagonist goes by the name Takeo, and starts the story in a very humble scenario - as all great fantasy heroes ought to. Takeo is a member of the Hidden, an outcast and pacifistic community. But, naturally, the narrative imperative isn't about to let the poor guy live out his years farming rice in a peaceful forest society. And, in the interests of making this a spoiler-free writeup (absolutely no spoilers guaranteed, or your purchase price of AU$0.00 cheerfully refunded) I'm not going to reveal any more plot details.
Across is a great read. You can think of it as a mix of The Lord of the Rings and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Don't expect an intellectual challenge, but feel free to expect action, tragedy, romance and plenty of cool hardware. Look out for Jato, the serpent sword, particularly. The author almost makes Jato seem a character in its (his?) own right.
I engaged with the novel very easily, and was immediately caught up in compassion for the two lead characters' plight. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys Japanese fantasy, or indeed anyone who likes high fantasy and hasn't yet had the pleasure of reading a Japanese setting. I'll be eagerly anticipating the arrival of the sequels.