CLAYTON'S JAPAN (the japan you have when you are not having japan)
Over the years there has sprung up a curious hybrid, the quasi-historical novel set an a sort of variant Japan. With some, it seems the author didn't quite have the courage of his/her convictions and so opted out of writing a straight historical. In these cases, it often seems a bit weird as the research is usually sound, only the names have been changed. In other cases, the change to a fictitious version of Japan is so dragons, tengu, gods, ghosts, kappa and ninja with real magical powers can be incorporated. It is often hard to know where to draw the line to separate them out from "normal" historical novels. For example, Clavell's Shogun has the names of historical figures changed (Blackthorne for Adams, Toranaga for Ieyasu) but that's the only variation. On the other hand, Birkin's The New Shogun has not only Sekigahara and Shimabara in the one man's life but also the Ako Vendetta!
To qualify for this page, a novel has either to play serious ducks ands drakes with the timeline; or fall into the fantasy genre with supernatural creatures treated as real; or be about a country like Japan but with a different name and whose cities and internal geography differ in some way. It has to be set in this variant world - a novel such as Nancy Baker's Blood and Chrysanthemums does not qualify because, although it has vampires in it, it is part of a series set in the present United States. Baker hasn't created a world with a quasi-Japan.
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Birkin, Malcolm, The New Shogun. Waterkloof, South Africa, Sanford Ridge Publishing, 2011 ISBN 9780620476072 17th century
This novel continues from where Clavell left off with Shogun. It isn't a sequel to Shogun as such as the main characters are fictitious and those historical characters which do appear have their real names restored for the most part (Tokugawa Ieyasu is here called Takanawa Takatora rather than Yoshi Toranaga as in Clavell.) The protagonist is a daimyo named Matsuda who saved Takanawa's life at Sekigahara and was suitably rewarded. However, after an altercation with a corrupt official, at Edo Castle, he falls out of favour and is exiled with his wife to the Izu Peninsula, There he tries to make a new life for himself as a non-samurai. With the aid of Will Adams, he goes into building bigger merchant ships and looks into trade. He makes friends among the other Izu exiles and together they have to deal with demands from the shogunate and the impossible new lord of Izu.
This could have been an interesting examination of the aftermath of a century of civil war, how peace and a unified country impacted on generations who had known only war. It could have been if Birkin hadn't decided to include the Shimabara Revolt and the Ako Vendetta (47 ronin story) as part of Matsuda's story and if the novel had a good editor, indeed had an editor at all.
To start with the second problem, it looks as if the manuscript was published as is with no attempt to correct typos or formatting. Not a good look. The narrative really needs tightening up as it reads like a series of events without any real structure. Cramming the Shimabara Revolt and the Ako Vendetta into the narrative as if occurring in one man's life doesn't seem to serve any point, in fact the Shimabara Revolt happens 'off stage' in one of the most contrived sections of the novel. Matsuda and his Dutch girlfriend just happen to have been lent Hara Castle to stay in by Lord Kiyomasa who happens to own it and whom Matsuda just happens to have met. Helen the Dutch woman is completely unbelievable. A young woman of good family of that time and place would not behave as she does, being so forward with her father's guest and then just swanning off with him to another part of the country and without telling him, not that he would have permitted anyway.
Too many things seem to happen for the sake of advancing the plot as the above exemplifies. Takatora seems, for this reason, to be very inconsistent. We are told he is wise and cunning but he is often depicted as irrational and violent, simply to serve the plot.
Then there are all sorts of odd things such a Matsuda's wife talking of going to banquets and shopping in Edo as if she were a character in a Regency romance. Japanese women of those days did not attend banquets with their husbands and shopping would either have been done by servants or else merchants would have brought the fancy goods to the castle or mansion.
The dialogue is stilted and there is rather too much of it, not to mention some rather dodgy Japanese (several different renditions of omedeto gozaimasu and ohayo gozaimasu, none of them correct).
Where the novel does shine is in the depiction of Izu and sailing in its bays. These sequences are when the whole thing suddenly comes to life. Another strength is the description of the development of the 'ishibune', the large cargo ships used to ship stone to Edo for the castle. This is not something usually dealt with in historical novels and it is interesting. If the novel had dwelt more on this and Matsuda's life in Izu, perhaps looking at his difficulties adjusting to peace and a life where he wasn't riding out to war all the time but was actually home, taking in his difficulties with the Izu daimyo, it would, I think, have been something really different and interesting.
Cooper, Iver, 1636: Seas of Fortune (Ring of Fire series) New York, Baen, 2014 978-1451639391
This novel is part of the alternate universe Ring of Fire series which postulates than a town from West Virginia in 2000 was hurled back in time and place to 1631 Germany. Naturally, like throwing a stone into a pond, this has repercussion which ripple outwards not only in the rest of Europe but in the world at large. This work explores the impact in South America and the Caribbean, in the first half, and in Japan in the second. Both parts consist of a set of linked short stories. Cooper described the story format as "braided" allowing overlaps in time and following the adventures of different lead characters. I thought it worked well, especially in the first part involving the Portuguese and the Dutch in South America. In the second part which deals with Japan's own expansion into South America, using it as a dumping ground for the Christians, this is less noticeable.
I really enjoyed this book, though I have to say I have not read anything in the Ring of Fire series. That didn't matter as enough background is given in the introduction. The first part was interesting because I am unfamiliar with the opening up of South America by Europeans. However, I particularly liked the second part, dealing as it does with a Japan which did not cut itself off from the rest of the words (barring the Dutch factory in Dejima and the odd Chinese embassy) but expanded into North America. There are some great characters, especially among the women - Lady Iroha and Yells-At-Bears (well., with a name like that, you get an idea this is no demure Indian maiden). The descriptions of the interactions of the Japanese with the natives are fascinating and told with a dry sense of humour. Equally fascinating are the political manoeuvring both in North America and in Japan. The stories are briskly told without the false exoticism that grates so much, people being people whether Japanese or Salish.
Falk, Nick and Tony Flowers, Samurai vs Ninja: The battle for the golden egg. North Sydney, Random House Australia, 2015 ISBN 9780857986054
Humorous series for kids, set in the Edo period where the ninja live on one hill and the samurai in another, in Hokkaido and are bitter rivals. The samurai are everything you should be - neat, polite, well-groomed, while the ninja are everything not and are more like kids tend to be, grubby and messy but highly skilled and sneaky.
Falk, Nick and Tony Flowers, Samurai vs Ninja: The race for the shogun's treasure. North Sydney, Random House Australia, 105 ISBN 9780857986368
Falk, Nick and Tony Flowers, Samurai vs Ninja: Day of the dreadful dead. North Sydney, Random House Australia, 2015 ISBN 9780857986382
Falk, Nick and Tony Flowers, Samurai vs Ninja: Curse of the oni. North Sydney, Random House Australia, 2015. ISBN 9780857986405
Feist, Raymond E. and Janny Wurts, Daughter of the Empire. New York, Bantam Books, 1991 (©1987 ISBN 055327211X
Out of scope. Though the alien culture does include elements of Japanese culture they are no more predominant than the many other cultures that have been skilfully and seamlessly blended to create the world of the Tsuranuanni. In other words, there is as much Aztec, North and South American Indian, Chinese, Korean - even Roman - as there is Japanese. This is a very well written series and incidentally gives a masterclass on world-building from borrowed cultures.
Feist, Raymond E. and Janny Wurts, Servant of the Empire. New York, Bantam, 1991 ISBN 0553292455
Feist, Raymond E. and Janny Wurts, Mistress of the Empire New York, Bantam, 1993 ISBN 0553561189
Fussell, Sandy, Samurai Kids 1: White Crane. Newtown, NSW, Walker Books, 2008 ISBN 9781821150203
Niya, also known as White Crane, who narrates the story, is a samurai boy with only one leg and one of five unusual children training by Ki-Yaga, a once famous samurai thought b y some to be a wizard (that is, those who don't first ask, "Isn't he dead?"). The other children are Kyoko, an albino girl with six fingers and toes; Mikko, a one-armed boy; Taji, a blind boy and Yoshi, a big strong boy who refuses to fight. They are the Cockroach-ryu, the underdogs in the annual samurai games. This year they are determined not to come last. Along the way they learn the true meaning of the samurai virtues Ki-Yaga has dinned into them: compassion, bravery, honour and forgiveness - and have fun.
This is written for primary school children but the dry humour of the prose makes it a treasure for any age group. It is set in a sort of alternate Japan with no pretensions of being anything else, a Japan where samurai training schools compete annually in games and there just might be real tengu. Each of the children has some sort of handicap but regards this as an advantage not a hindrance but Fussell doesn't labour this point nor become preachy, instead she maintains a light tone. She pokes gentle fun at some of the conventions and clichés of martial arts novels and films, particularly zen. "The hardest question is: 'What is the sound of one hand clapping?'" Niya tells us, adding, "Mikko knows the answer. Clapping with one hand is what a one-armed kid does all the time. Zen questions are easy for me because I know the secret. It's NOTHING. The answer to every question is some sort of NOTHING..." or "Sensei says the true swordsman doesn't need a blade. 'The point of a sword is...' Sensei pauses mid-sentence to make sure we are all paying attention. I know this one. The point of the sword is to defend with dignity. 'The point of a sword is very sharp,' Sensei says. That's true, too." On getting dressed in full samurai kit, Niya notes, "Samurai are fashion warriors. It's not enough to die honourably. You have to look good, too."
Great fun, the first of a series.
Fussell, Sandy, Samurai Kids 2 : Owl Ninja. Newtown, NSW, Walker Books, 2008 ISBN 9781921150371
The sequel to White Crane sees the motley crew of the Cockroach-ryu racing against their enemies to stop a war which is brewing among the mountain lords. To do this they must reach the Emperor who is staying at Toyozawa Castle. On the way they encounter ghosts (one of whom gives Niya some rather peculiar advice) and ninja, whom the wily Ki-Yaga has teach his pupils how to infiltrate the castle. The kids have great fun learning what it is to be a ninja, even if it is only for one day.
This is another rollicking adventure set in an imaginary Japan, narrated by Niya in his inimitable style with his usual humorous asides ("'When you have lost your place in the world, you are enlightened and your mind will triumph in battle,' Sensei taught us. That's good news for me. I've got a terrible sense of direction and I get lost often. I'm on the fast track to enlightenment and victory."). At the end it seems our intrepid crew are to set sail for foreign parts.
Fussell, Sandy, Samurai Kids 3: Shaolin Tiger. Newtown, NSW, Walker Books, 2009 ISBN 9781921150906
Following on from Owl Ninja the five from the Cockroach-ryu plus sensei Ki-Yaga are on their way by junk to China as Ki-Yaga has been summoned by the Shaolin Temple which is under threat from hostile factions at the Imperial court as well as barbarian invasions. A storm at sea deprives them of the ship's captain much to Yoshi's dismay as he tried to hard to save him, but they arrive nonetheless with Yoshi still brooding.
China might best be described as damp. It rains all the time and the rivers, particularly the Yellow River, are in flood. Here they meet the captain's brother who gives them as a guide Mei, one of his daughters who trained at the Shaolin Temple. They also encounter rascally boatmen, hostile villagers and refugees from the wars to the north. But the biggest menace is a former pupil of Ki-Yaga's, Qing-Shen. He knows everything Ki-Yaga knows and has a formidable reputation as a warrior among the ordinary folk. He wants Ki-Yaga dead for failing to give him his 'secret' and treasure as promised years ago.
Again this is told in Niya's inimitable wry style even if the story is a bit darker what with Yoshi so affected by his failure to save the captain, Qing-Sheng's threat, Ki-Yaga's regrets and the sense he may leave them at some point because of other unfinished business. Niya has taken a further step towards becoming a leader. The group learn something from the Shaolin monks and not just fancy foot moves and Niya makes a new friend. Another enjoyable entry in this series.
Fussell, Sandy, Samurai Kids 4: Monkey Fist. Newtown, NSW, Walker Books, 2009. ISBN 9781921150913
The kids are still in China having left the Shaolin Temple behind and Yoshi who had returned to it when they saw smoke coming from it. He soon returns as Ki-Yaga faces yet another old enemy, Secretary Lu Zheng whom he had beaten years before in an Imperial examination. Kyoko is kidnapped and the others must journey to the Forbidden City to find her and face Lu Zheng, with the aid of the Lin Kuei, China's answer to ninja. And Niya must learn a lesson in trust.
Another entertaining entry told with humour, wry wit and dry, shrewd and wise observations.
Fussell, Sandy, Samurai Kids 5: Fire Lizard. Newtown, NSW, Walker Books, 2010 ISBN 9781921529467
The kids have left China and are now travelling in the mountains of Korea with Chen, the Chinese boy they picked up in Beijing. Ki-Yaga is looking for a hidden village where his old teacher, Pak Cho lives. There has been a drought and on top of that a bandit and his gang have been terrorising all the villages of the valleys. Some farmers, in their desperation, have turned to banditry, too. Pak Cho looks like a frail old man and is treated with great reverence. He decides to accompany Ki-Yaga and the kids to Daejeon when Ki-Yaga decides to deliver a warning to the corrupt governor.
Another delightful entry in this series where the kids must prove themselves again, make new friends and act on lessons learned in the previous books. Like the others, it is full of wry humour and sharp observations.
Fussell, Sandy, Samurai Kids 6: Golden Bat Newtown, NSW, Walker Books, 2011 ISBN 9781921529474
Still in Korea, the friends lose one of their number to pirates. Oong the pirate captain is holding Mikko hostage and if the Little Cockroaches want him back they must retrieve Oong's nephew from the clutches of a corrupt magistrate. Yet another wry, charming and wise tale in the series which now looks as if it is heading off to India.
Fussell, Sandy, Samurai Kids 7: Red Fox Newtown, NSW, Walker Books, 2012 ISBN 9781922077509
Niya finds himself shipwrecked off the coast of what he discovers later is Cambodia. He is alone and fears the worst. However, some villagers bring him back to theirs where he is reunited with Chen. They encounter a holy woman and her boy companion who guides them to the decaying city of Angkor where they believe Yoshi might be. There is plenty of adventure and a new friend whom they help overcome his muteness and the trauma he suffered before they are all reunited. However, Ki Yaga has done some soul-searching and realises they must return to Japan instead of going on to India where he must face up to the consequences of his actions in the past. This is another excellent entry in this series with plenty of Niya's humour. He is maturing as a leader but he still needs to curb his impatience.
Fussell, Sandy, Samurai Kids 8: Black Tengu. Newtown, NSW, Walker Books, 2013 ISBN 9781922077622
Hearn, Lian, Across the Nightingale Floor. Sydney, Hodder Headline Australia, 2002. ISBN 0733615627. Tales of the Otori Book 1
This is the first book in a proposed trilogy, set in one of those Japan-analogs along the lines of Jessica Amanda Salmondson’s Naipon or Ruth Manley’s Idzumo. Like those other trilogies, the country concerned is enough like Japan of a particular time (in this case the Sengoku Period) as to warrant being listed in a bibliography of historical novels.
Fleeing the massacre of his village in which his mother and step-father have died, and fearing the wrath of Lord Iida whom he has unseated from his horse in his fligh, the boy Tomasu is saved from Iida’s henchmen by the mysterious Lord Otori Shigeru. Tomasu’s people are the Hidden who worship a secret god but Tomasu bears an uncanny resemblance to Shigeru’s slain brother, Takeshi. Temporarily struck mute by his recent experiences, Tomasu, now called Takeo and part of Shigeru’s household, discovers some unusual powers, part of yet another legacy, that of the Tribe to whom his father belonged. The Tribe are remnants of families of sorcerers and keep to themselves, though hire out their skills to those whom will pay (think super-ninja, or rather ninja whose skills are real not illusion). It is a time of civil war with Lord Iida seeking to gain control of as many fiefs as he can, having defeated the Otori in battle some years before. As the one responsible for Takeshi’s death, he is Shigeru’s sworn enemy. Shigeru’s uncles control the Otori fief and want Iida as an ally while Shigeru wants revenge. Meantime, young Lady Kaede is hostage at the castle of one of Iida’s allies, where she is shamefully treated but Iida sees a way to use her to bring down the popular Shigeru.
This is a tale of treachery, mystery, intrigue and hidden agendas, and conflicting loyalties, particularly Takeo who is torn between his loyalty to Shigeru who saved his life and who has treated him kindly, and the bonds he has with the Tribe, much as he might despise them, and the Hidden, the people and religion he grew up with. His story is told in the first person and alternates with Lady Kaede’s tale, told in the third person as the two are gradually drawn together by chance, at least for a while.
Although the seasons pass in turn, the chief impression is dampness and oppression - humidity, storms, floods, typhoons and constant rain. Water everywhere, all of which fits the sombre mood of most of the novel. The style is straightforward with short sentences, yet vividly descriptive. There are enough twists and turns to keep one guessing. It will be interesting to see how this all develops since both protagonists have been left at a plateau in their lives.
Hearn, Lian, Grass for His Pillow. Sydney, Hodder Headline, 2003. ISBN 0733615635. Tales of the Otori book 2.
Sequel to Across the Nightingale Floor, this novel deals with the aftermath of the defeat of the Iida and Lord Arai’s takeover. Kaede returns home, the home she hasn’t seen since she was seven. She finds the place run down and her father unhinged. Shizuka, her attendant and a member of the Tribe (the ninja-like organisation) puts it about that Kaede secretly married Shigeru to explain her pregnancy, whereas the father is Takeo, his adopted brother. The eccentric exiled neighbour, Lord Fujiwara, takes an interest in her, wanting to add her to his collection of fine art but he might be Kaede’s best hope if she wants to claim her Maruyama inheritance.
Meantime, in fulfilment of his promise, Takeo has gone off with the Tribe, leaving Shigeru unavenged. He wants to explore that side of his heritage, however, the others fear his powers even though he lacks their training and their mindset. He soon finds their ruthlessness and cruelty repellent and resolves to escape. Lord Arai plans to exterminate the Tribe.
As in the first novel, this is told in the first person by Takeo alternating with a third person account of Kaede, though this time the book begins with Kaede instead of Takeo. Both characters develop considerably. Kaede discovers strength and steel she didn’t know she had, as well as a rebellion against a woman’s lot of that time and place, and a desire to lead. Actually, I found her and her story the more interesting of the two this time around. Takeo not only finds out he really isn’t suited to be one of the tribe, despite his Tribe-derived skills but that he is a fusion of the three elements: Otori (through an unsuspected blood tie), the Tribe and the Hidden (he reconnects with the Hidden and hears a prophecy). Though both learn and grow, neither is cured of a certain rashness and an impulsive act near the end puts them in danger from several directions.
The tone of this novel is not as sombre as the first. There is more action and the passing seasons lyrically described, especially autumn and winter. One is not left with a feeling of oppressive humidity. The cover is exquisite, the soft blue-toned snowy landscape beneath a foregrounded sword.
Hearn, Lian, Brilliance of the Moon. Sydney, Hodder Headline, 2004. ISBN 0733615643. Tales of the Otori Book 3
Set right after the conclusion of the previous book, Grass For His Pillow, we find Takeo and Kaede are married and are at the temple of Terayama from where they proceed to Maruyama to claim Kaede’s inheritance. In the process Takeo fights two of the prophesied battles as the Tohan are besieging Maruyama. Once Maruyama is taken, Takeo turns his attention to retaking Hagi and neutralising his Otori uncles. To do that, he seeks the assistance of a childhood friend turned pirate. In the meantime Kaede finds her sisters have been sent away and visits Lord Fujiwara to demand an explanation and is captured by him. Takeo loses Maruyama through treachery and the forces of Lord Arai and in the end is compelled to surrender to him as well. Things look very bleak indeed with Kaede kidnapped, friends killed, his own capture and news of the birth of his son by Yuki, the son destined to kill him, and only part of the prophecy fulfilled.
This concludes the story quite satisfactorily. It has a lot more action and battles than the earlier books, including a spectacular ‘ninja’ style duel near the end. However, I feel characterisation suffered a bit, particularly Kaede who was developing in an interesting way in the second book but her sense of empowerment disappears in this one to be replaced with an impression she is being punished for daring to be bold and independent. In fact, there is a decidedly anti-feminist subtext at times. There is a hint that more novels set in this universe could appear. After all, there are some loose ends or ideas which are not followed up such as the presence of foreigners and their technology and the fact the Hidden and the Christians believe the same thing. The Tribe is split but not destroyed and there are still restless warlords trying to overthrow the peace that Takeo has struggled so hard to bring. It’s as if nothing has really changed.
Hearn, Lian, The Harsh Cry of the Heron, Tales of the Otori Book 4. Sydney, Hodder Australia, 2006. ISBN 0733621260
At almost 700 pages, this novel is almost as big as the trilogy which precedes it. The 'three countries' have been at peace for 16 years and have grown prosperous under the wise rule of Takeo and Kaede. The couple have three daughters, the older, Shigeko, is a practitioner of the Way of the Houou, while her younger sisters, the twins Miki and Maya, study at the secret villages of the Tribe. Takeo's brother-in-law, however, is plotting against him and an imperial messenger comes with an order from the Emperor that he abdicate. Meantime, Takeo's son by Yuki is now 16 years old and has been raised by an old enemy among the Tribe to hate Takeo. Other cracks in the smooth surface of life in Three Countries appear - old teachers and mentors die, foreigners appear wanting trade and even the loyalty of the Tribe is in doubt. Piece by piece the idyllic world Takeo and Kaede worked so hard to build is unravelling.
You know this is going to be a bit doom, gloom and epitaph as the famous opening lines of the Heike Monogatari are used as a commencing quote. Indeed, if there is a theme, it is that not only that nothing lasts forever, not even good things as there is always some envious person trying to tear them down but that things built on white lies and deception can't last anyway even if the deception was done for the best of reasons.
That said, the novel sorely needs a good editor. Too long and wordy by half, it seems to take ages to get anywhere. Fully a third of the book is taken up with a lot of to-ing and fro-ing from each of the major cities of the Three Countries and in long slabs of dialogue discussing the political situation, There are too many characters introduced with their genealogies but little else to distinguish them. This would have been better handled with a list of characters at the front of the book. The prose is rather more ponderous than in the previous three novels. It does pick up, however, and there are some exciting battles near the end. There are also some gorgeous lyrical descriptions of scenery which we have come to expect but it is quite a struggle at times to get there. Another problem is characterisation. Kaede seemed slightly "off" to me with her obsession with having a son and her total besottedness with the the child when it did eventuate. Her reactions near the end seemed over the top and she actually became quite unsympathetic. Lord Saga's forgiveness of and attraction to Shigeko also seemed unlikely given she cost him his eye and forced his withdrawal. Some reviewers have described the ending as 'rushed' and I have to agree. Not a bad read but it could have been pruned to allow for better character development later on.
Hearn, Lian, Heaven's Net is Wide. Sydney, Hachette Australia, 2007. ISBN 9780733621444
This 'prequel' tells Shigeru's story and begins about 16 or 17 years before the events in Across the Nightingale Floor. In it, we learn of the backgrounds and motivations of many of the people who feature in the original; trilogy, especially Nightingale Floor such as Shizuka, Muto Kenji, Kikuta Kotaro, Arai Daiichi and Maruyama Naomi; and how they figure in Shigeru's life and consequently that of Takeo. From the outset, we see the Middle Country threatened by the ambitious Iida family of the Tohan. It is only a matter of time before they start making incursions into Otori territory drawn by its wealth. Shigeru is aware of this and tries to make preparations but is hindered by his uncles who would rather appease the Iida. The turning point comes with the defeat of the Otori at Yaegahara where so many of their people are slain - a defeat caused by the treachery of one of their vassal. Shigeru must tread a dangerous path, feigning weakness and an obsession with agricultural matters while he is plotting his revenge with a wily, suspicious enemy on the one hand and his treacherous uncles on the other. Gradually the pieces fall into place: the realisation that assassination is the only way to deal with Iida, the alliance with Lady Maruyama, the discovery of his half-brother's son surviving among the Hidden and the construction of the Nightingale Floor - so the scene is set for the events of the original trilogy.
This books is a great improvement on Harsh Cry of the Heron. One reason is that in being a 'prequel' it has a certain symmetry and the events build on each other to form the background to the later stories. This isn't all, however, as the novel stands up well enough on its own. Shigeru is an appealing character and I found him more sympathetic than Takeo in the later books. He is humorous and humane, quick to learn, curious, not afraid to branch out into other areas of learning. His motives are clear and he is consistent. The same is true of Lady Maruyama - she, too, loses a child to the Kikuta 'sleep' but she doesn't go bonkers suddenly and throw away everything she's worked for as Kaede did in Harsh Cry. The prose is as lyrical and as descriptive as in the other books and it moves swiftly. Something - indeed, quite a few somethings - happens and continue to happen right from the start and it isn't as ponderous as Heron. There is a list of characters in the front and how they are related, something Heron could have benefited from and saved a lot of tedium.
One thing I find curious is that both in Heron and Nightingale Floor, the death of a major character - Takeo in the former and Shigeru in the latter - happens off-stage and is described by a third party. I am also not sure what the significance of the Hidden is - a sect of Christians founded long before the coming of the Portuguese, apparently founded by missionaries coming from India. It never really amounts to much. But these are minor quibbles. Net is a satisfying final novel which is also the start of the series.
Hearn, Lian, Emperor of the Eight Islands (The Tale of Shikanoko). Sydney, Hachette Australia, 2016 ISBN 9780733635137
Set in the same or similar semi-mythical Japan as the Tales of the Otori (one where guardian spirits, mythical beings and sorcery are real), this tells of the rivalry between two warrior clans, the citified Kakizuri (read: Taira) and the more warlike Miboshi (read: Minamoto) which include the murder of the rightful heir to the throne and the hunt to kill his son. It is told through the eyes of several characters - Shikanoko, whose uncle dispossessed him of his lands and who has been made a sorcerer against his will; a lord of the Kakizuki, his daughter and his younger brother, a lady of the Miboshi clan and a princess who is foster sister to the young true emperor.
I really enjoyed this novel, rather more than some of the Otori series (names Harsh Cry of the Heron). The differing viewpoints really keep it moving and hold the attention. It has a good pace but not at the expense of characterisation or detail.
Hearn, Lian, Lord of the Darkwood (The Tale of Shikanoko). Random House Australia, 2016 ISBN 9780733635151
Higgins, Simon, Moonshadow: Eye of the Beast. North Sydney, Random House Australia, 2008 ISBN 9781741662832
Moonshadow, youngest agent on the Grey Light Order who are spies for the Shogun, is sent on his first mission: to steal plans bought from foreigners for a terrible new weapon with which Silver Wolf, Lord of Momoyama Castle would use to overthrow the shogun. Silver Wolf, however, has, in addition to two of his samurai, three hired experts whose task is to prevent the theft of these plans. These are Jiro, a flashily dressed gambler who is skilled in shuriken-throwing; Akira a ninja and Deathless, another ninja with a formidable reputation who cannot be killed with a sword blade. Moonshadow also encounters an enigmatic girl on the way to Fushimi whom he sees again in the town; and a belligerent ronin who tries to coerce him into taking him on as a body guard (this becomes a running joke in the novel as different characters encounter the same ronin who tries his trick on each of them). Once in the castle, Moonshaodw finds an unusual ally but he will need all his skills to survive not only his deadly opponents but the novelty of being in the wide world and not in the monastery that was his home for most of his life.
Set in a variant of early Tokugawa Japan, this is first-rate ninja derring-do. Moonshadow is an appealing character with some unusual skills, quick-witted and resourceful. There is humour as well as adventure as in the case of the persistent ronin mentioned above. Fans of The Samurai should enjoy this book, especially as there were several 'Deathless' ninja in that, one of whom was defeated exactly the same way as the one in the novel.
Higgins has also written a series for older readers, Tomodachi set in 16th century Japan.
Higgins, Simon, Moonshadow: the Wrath of Silver Wolf. North Sydney, Random House Australia, 2009 ISBN 978174166405
Something big is coming. Many of the Grey Light Order have been sent to various parts of the country to listen in to the plotting. Moonshadow and Snowhawk find themselves listening in the roof cavity of the Edo mansion of Akechi, a minor daimyo. It seems that two seemingly disparate groups, the old nobility and the newly risen merchant class, are in a plot to disrupt the new peace. Upon their return to the monastery where they report their findings, they are sent on a mission to the mystical (and apparently ageless) White Nun who is expecting an attack.
In the meantime, Moon’s old enemy Lord Silver Wolf, has assembled another team of assassins including Jiro, the knife-throwing gambler who has now graduated to bo-shuriken and owes Moon a grudge because of his damaged knee. The others are Kagero, a former Clan Fuma woman ninja with a deadly line in weapons and an interesting quirk of handing out good advice to her enemies, and Chikuma, a powerful Clan Fuma ninja with formidable hypnotic powers despite the fact he looks and dresses like a dandy. Their task is to remove the Grey Light and thus expose the shogun, making it easier for Silver Wolf to bring him down.
This captures well the uncertainty of the times, the newly established shogunate, Edo still under construction and the rise of the merchant class (Higgins here takes a pop at corporatism and mercantilism in general). There’s plenty of ninja action and Moon takes his ability to use an animal as his eyes and ears to a new level. Clan Fuma comes across as cruel (death for failure) and unforgiving (they want Snowhawk back).
Higgins, Simon, Moonshadow: The Twilight War North Sydney, Random House Australia, 2011 ISBN 9781864719772
A night attack on the Grey Light Order's monastery by the Fuma sees the building damaged by fire, Eagle badly wounded by a poisoned Fuma blade and Snowhawk kidnapped by her old clan. Plus an awful lot of dead bodies including some senior Fuma. Lord Silver Wolf is now employing the Fuma, it seems. Moonshadow and Groundspider are sent to the Fuma's lair, a cave complex in the mountains, to find Snowhawk and determine whether she was truly captured or if she was really a double-agent.
This is another excellent instalment in this series, full of ninja action, treachery, divided loyalties and Moonshadow moves his ability to use an animal as his eyes even further. Kagero makes a return and we meet Fuma Kotaro, the Fuma's chief at which point old Samurai fans will be hugging their goose-bumps and not just because of the ninja-derring-do as Kotaro's description is not too different to his television counterpart. There's enough weirdness anyway what with oni turning up. The ending seems to lead directly to a mission to kill the deadly Koga Danjo who is working for a rival warlord. If anyone is suffering from Samurai withdrawal symptoms, this will give you a fix.
Kristoff, Jay, Stormdancer: Lotus War, Book One. London, Tor, 2012 ISBN 9780230762886
This is a genuine alternative Japan, rather than a variant. Here the country is called Shima and though it is ruled by a Shogun surrounded by samurai, it is a very different place from what you would expect. Thanks to a plant, the red lotus which supplies fuel, a drug and just about everything else, they have airships, electricity (though most things run on steam or clockwork), antibiotics, powered armour and even chainsaw katanas (if you can imagine such a thing given the fact chainsaws are unwieldy and clunky and the katana is anything but). However, there is a price: the red lotus sucks dry the land, great tracts of it are no longer fertile and dead, the air is heavily polluted so people have to cover their mouths with cloths or breathing apparatus and nearly all the animals including dragons are dead. The real rulers of the country would appear to be the Guildsmen from whom all the technology flows. They conceal themselves in powered armour and live in windowless fortresses called Chapterhouses. They are also on a purity kick and want to eliminate anyone with telepathy or similar abilities.
One day the current Shogun, who is a bit of a nutter, learns that an arashitora (a sort of griffin) has been seen and wants one so he can ride it into battle. To that end he sends the hunter Masaru and his daughter Yukiko to capture it. Things go very pear-shaped and Yukiko has to survive on her own in rough mountain country in the pouring rain where she not only makes an odd friend but also has her eyes opened as to what is really going and becomes embroiled in a plot to kill the shogun.
Starts with a bang with one of the most gripping first chapters, then gets bogged down en endless over-baked description which serves more to confuse than enlighten before picking up again and going full tilt until the end with intrigue, treachery, friendship and action. Not a bad read though the misuse of Japanese tended to make my eyes water. If you don't know the language, there's no need to put it in. Or, as the maxim for feeding cavies and rabbits has it, "When in doubt, leave it out". After all, it doesn't add anything especially as "Shima" seems to be a fusion of China and Japan with Japan predominating (the greetings and expressions of exasperation are Chinese). Also, the Japan element is more surface as the impression, the feel of the place is steampunk Victorian (despite antibiotics). Buildings have glass windows, people wear shoes indoors, people are said to be starving for want of bread (rather than rice), the Chapterhouses seem like Kafkaesque redoubts. Still definitely "A" for originality in the variant-Japan sub-genre.
Kristoff, Jay, Kinslayer: Lotus War Book Two. London, Tor, 2013 ISBN 9780230768963
Lake, Nick, Blood Ninja London, Corvus, 2010 ISBN 9781848873872
Someone obviously thought it was a grand idea: vampires are cool, ninja are cool, why not combine the two? After all, it works for the vampires and pirates in the Vampirates series. And maybe it would have been, in the hands of someone else, someone with at least some idea of Japanese history, culture, ninja, vampires and who can write.
The story is a common one in juvenile literature, of an ordinary boy with a mysterious background who is singled out for some great destiny. In this case it is Taro, a fisherman's son who has mastered the bow his father was said to have given him. He and his mother are attacked by ninja and he is rescued by another ninja and taken to a ninja hideout to train there. All ninja are vampires, we are told, which is why they only operate at night (really?). However, Taro proves to be a bit special and, after being turned, can operate in daytime. The big bad is Oda Nobunaga who wants him dead because of who he really is.
There is absolutely no sense of time or place. The chronology is a mess. Hideyoshi is dead and there are six regents (not the five of the history books) for his young son, yet Oda Nobunaga is still alive and even fought a duel with Miyamoto Musashi. This Nobunaga is one-armed with only a daughter whereas the real one had two good arms and enough children to field almost two cricket teams. But one feels that Lake simply plucked Japanese names randomly as two other characters bear the names of 20th century novelists (Endo Shusaku and Kawabata). In this Japan, there are stone castles (that is, the keep is made of stone), grey-eyed Japanese (quite a lot of those), Japanese girls wear jewellery such as rings, ear-rings and so on, ninja wear three scarves on the head and cloaks (oh well, they are vampires and vampires wear cloaks, I suppose) and rowboats are of the western type with the rower seated in the centre with an oar in each hand..
Even if we pass over this sort of thing and pretend it's an alternate reality (akin to the one in The Wedding of River Song), there are still problems. The fictional characters are flat and tend to do things simply to further the plot. Events are very contrived. For example, at one point Taro somehow drops his bow while walking along, not in a fight, rather as if he dropped a shopping list or a purse. A bit unlikely he'd not notice, given the length of Japanese bows. Taro and his friends become expert swordsmen with only a few days training when Taro had never held a sword before. He is able to take on an expert swordsman like Nobunaga, simply because the plot required it.
Contradictions abound. Hana, Nobunaga's daughter is said to be staying at an inn. Then, when she returns after being rescued (another clumsy, contrived sequence), the inn has become a house requisitioned by her father. Heiko told Taro how Shusaku came to be a vampire so why was he surprised when told again later. The book is full of this sort of carelessness. The same information is repeated at different points, too.
Lake has no idea of ninja (has he even seen a proper ninja film like any of the Shinobi no Mono series?). He makes a big deal of "ninja not always fighting unarmed". Well, der. The way of approaching Nagoya Castle taken by Taro and co. is so what a ninja wouldn't do: taking the direct route, being easily seen, etc. He doesn't seem to realise they did operate by day and were in disguise. He seems to think they always wore their black outfit as though it were some sort of uniform.
Nor is the vampire aspect developed. All we know is that they can be destroyed by the sun but they don't need to sleep by day, just stay out of sunlight. Do they shape shift? Change into mist? Vanish at will? Pas through cracks or what? The blood drinking aspect is played down. In fact the whole vampire aspect could have been omitted as it isn't used much.
This book could have worked if done tongue in cheek. As it is, it takes itself far too seriously but Lake doesn't have the writing skill or historical background to carry it off. It would have been better as a fusion of the sort of thing Sandy Fussell does so well in her Samurai Kids series and the Sookie Stackhouse stories where vampires are part of the community.
Lake, Nick, Lord Oda's Revenge (Blood Ninja II) London, Corvus, 2011 ISBN 9781848873891
Lake, Nick, Betrayal of the Living (Blood Ninja III) London, Atlantic Books, 2013 ISBN 9780857898098
Leigh Stephen and Miller, John J. Dinosaur Samurai. New York, Avon, 1993. ISBN 038076279X
This is the third in a series of books based on the Ray Bradbury short story where someone, on a time safari into prehistoric times, accidentally kills a butterfly and in doing so alters his own present. I haven’t read the first two but couldn’t resist this one because of its title which manages to combine two currently megatrendy things. Actually, though aimed at teenagers, it isn’t a bad read. The premise is that one Eckels (not to be confused with anyone from The Goon Show), a psychotic not only killed a butterfly but shot a dinosaur, thus messing history up and creating a series of alternate realities by his actions.
The books opens on a world where humans never evolved and dinosaurs are the intelligent species. Most of the action takes place in yet another alternate reality where Japan colonised America in the 16th century and is set in what would have been Illinois with samurai warring with Mound Builders and Iroquois, using arquebuses (this now being the 17th century) as well as swords. Apart from the usual glitches over names (Akira being used as a family rather than a given name and the odd masculine given name such as ‘Tomiko’) it was fun.
Lupoff, Richard, Sword of the Demon. New York, Harper & Row, 1976. ISBN 0060127171
This is a beautifully even lyrically written fantasy based on a number of Japanese legends or myths, most notably the story of Susanoo and the eight-headed dragon, and the Grass-Cutting Sword of the Imperial regalia (the titular sword of the demon which doesn’t appear until about two-thirds of the way through).
It begins with an androgynous golden figure being pursued by a black sexless figure in infinity, during which chase the first figure gradually becomes a woman named Kishimo who arrives in a woodland. She is saved from a deadly spider (whose appearance harks back to the black pursuer) by a man-god named Aizen (Aizen-myoo, a Buddhist god of love). This is Kishimo’s story as she grows as a person in strength, going from the grim Sea of Mists and a mysterious ship bearing the all-powerful child, Miroku (the bodhisattva to be born in the future), Aizen’s rival, to the Land of Gloom (Yomi, the Shinto underworld) where they are joined by Susano-wu (Susanoo). Each has a quest to fulfil: Aizen to seek enlightenment; Kishimo to grow as a person and Susanoo to atone for the shame of losing the ‘Kuzanugi’ sword (ie. Kusanagi, the Grass-Cutting Sword).
Set in no particular era (references are made to samurai and the weaponry is of the feudal era) it has the feel of one of those wonderful children’s tales, such as The Princess and the Goblin, though it is not a children’s story. There are swordfights and battles as well as exotic and strange places. Kishimo is an interesting heroine, warrior as much as anything. Other items from Japanese myth featured include the Tide Turning Jewels and shikimo (here more like tengu rather than ugly women). An unusual and well done type of ‘Japan’ novel.
Manley, Ruth, The Plum-Rain Scroll. Sydney, Hodder & Stoughton, 1978. ISBN 0060127171
The Dragon Stone. Sydney, Hodder & Stoughton, 1980. ISBN 0340266252
The Peony Lantern. Sydney, Hodder & Stoughton, 1987. ISBN 0340376139
A trilogy for children and young adults but like the best of them able to be enjoyed by any age. It tells the tale of Taro, an orphan odd job boy at the Tachibana-ya inn as he and his friends battle the evil of Lord Marishoten, the Jewel Maid and others who attempt to destroy or subvert the land of Idzumo. Set in no particular period it is draws on myths and legends of Japan from the Kojiki, the Nihongi, popular folklore and even The Samurai TV series, blending them skilfully into a witty whimsical epic along the lines of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain (only he used Wales and Welsh legend). For a detailed discussion see Plum Rain Scroll, Dragon Stone and Peony Lantern
Marriott, Zoe, Shadows on the Moon. London, Walker Books, 2011 ISBN 9781406318159
A re-telling of Cinderella set in a fairy-tale Japan (the author may claim it is a fantasy county with terms from China and Japan but as the Japanese terms and names predominate by a wide margin, to me it's "Japan"). Suzume loses her father in an attack and she and her mother are taken by her father's friend, Terayama, to his home and her mother marries Terayama. Suzume later overhears something which causes her to flee and she finds safety as a kitchen drudge named Rin, with the aid of an old family servant, Youta. He helps her discover and hone her powers as a 'shadow-weaver', (i.e. illusionist) which he shares though not at her level. As Rin, she thinks she has committed a horrible crime and flees once again this time out into the city where she rescues and becomes the companion of Akira, the 'Shadow Bride" of the previous Moon Prince (the ruler of that place). Becoming the Shadow Bride of the young Moon Prince seems to her to be the only way she can get revenge on the murderer of her father.
This is quite good of its type. The characters are interesting and wall drawn and the settings well described. It's just that I am not very fond of 'fairytale' Japans, especially infused with the conventions of teen romance'
Merz, Jon F. The Undead Hordes of Kan-Gul (Shadow Warrior Saga 1) Baen, 2013 (also Kindle)
This appears to be one of those "alternate Japan" series (Japan is called Nehan in this) and Japanese terms such as musha shugyo are used, though samurai are called "murai" and ninja "shinobujin but the action takes place west of Japan. It also features dragons, zombies, sorcerers and magic. Young adult.
Parks, Richard, Yamada monogatari: Demon hunter. Prime Books, 2013 ISBN 9781607013839
This is a collection of loosely linked short stories about Yamada no Goji, a member of the minor nobility living in the Heian period whose trade is sorting out (and removing) demons, ogres, ghost and fox-spirits. A sort of early Japanese Carnacki the Ghost Hunter with a touch of London's falling, not to mention Peter Grant (like Grant, he makes use of a ghost as an informant). This was a lovely discovery, as the stories, though told in the first person with a certain hard-boiled edge, at least in the earlier ones, are like folk tales of the sort often collected in anthologies of the period. The style simply flows like an ancient storyteller's. Yamada and his companion, Kenji, a dodgy priest whose speciality is the creation of talismans and the odd exorcism, are engaging characters even though Yamada sis a troubled soul who seeks escape in the sake bottle.
Parks, Richard, Yamada monogatari: To break the demon gate. Prime Books, 2014 ISBN 9781607014355
Unlike the previous books, this is one continuous tale. It expands of one the stories in the first book, "Moon viewing at Shijo Bridge", forming a sequel. In this Yamada with the dubious help of Kenji and a mysterious dancer has to solve some mysterious murders where no one could have been near the victim. This is tied in with court politics of the sort that led Princess Teiko to take her own life in the short story on which the novel is based. The stakes are still the same, the succession of her son to the throne. Her old nemesis, Sentaro, is involved somehow even though he has been relegated to Enryakuji as an abbot. At first this is a little slow without the wonderful array of spooky beasties of the first book, (and one of those meets his demise) but it certainly built to a powerful climax with a supernatural cloud growing and growing to apocalyptic proportions, engulfing Kyoto Yamada and his chums certainly have heir work cut out for them with such a pow3erful enemy
Parks, Richard, Yamada monogatari: The war god's son. Prime Books, 2015 ISBN 9781607014577
Lord Yamada and Kenji are sent north with Minamoto Yoshiie to protect him has he has been targeted for assassination by agents of the Abe Clan who are in full rebellion and the reason Yoshiie and his party are heading north. Their weapon of choice is the shikigami, something which looks human but isn't and when destroyed all that remains is a piece of paper. At its simplest, these are used to gather information or as warriors. However, there is a more sophisticated version which is indistinguishable from a real human being, even when personally known to the victim. Not even Yamada's and Kenji's senses can detect them
This is a tale of treachery and things and people not being what they seem. There is the usual quota of angry ghostws and kappa for Yamada to sort out but we are given hints that this is a time of transition, a shift away from the emperor and court to the warrior clans away from the capital, a foreshadowing of the Genpei War to come. Another excellent read.
Parks, Richard, Yamada monogatari: The emperor in shadow. Prime books, 2016 ISBN 9781607014812
Salmonson, Jessica Tomoe Gozen New York, Ace 1981 ISBN 0441816525
The Golden Naginata New York, Ace, 1982 ISBN 0441297528
Thousand Shrine Warrior New York, Ace 1984 ISBN 0441807615
Like Lupoff’s Sword of the Demon or Manley’s Plum Rain Scroll/Dragon Stone/Peony Lantern trilogy, this trilogy is set in a quasi-mythical Japan, a place named Naipon in an alternate reality where it is ostensibly the time of the Genpei Wars (12th century) but gods, demons, ghosts and sorcerers intermingle with historical and quasi-historical folk and magic is real.
In the first novel we are introduced to Tomoe and three of her fellow samurai, a quartet of friends loyal to Lord Shigeno. However, Tomoe’s pride in her Chinese swords which were supposed to have been destroyed as part of her mission to kill a traitorous swordsmith who had fled to China leads to her being possessed by a Chinese sorcerer in the employ of the Emperor of Japan who has sent an army against many warlords. As a result thousands are killed including one of the four friends. A second, because of his bargain with the sorcerer to save Tomoe becomes a psychotic semi-demon and the third, torn between his requirement to kill Tomoe for killing their lord while possessed, and his friendship for her, becomes a monk.
Freed of her enchantment but now masterless, Tomoe embarks on a journey with Toshima, the daughter of her lord in which she goes to Hell, meets a Buddhist nun (Tomoe tends to be a staunch Shintoist), a young samurai going to redeem his sister sold to a brothel, assorted demons, ghosts and even dwells for a time in a ruined city of stone, battles ninja, outwits a false rokubu and ultimately aids a goddess. In all this she holds fast to her honour as a samurai and helps the weaker, while trying to be less prideful and egotistical.
The second novel is rather darker as certain unfinished business from the first must be dealt with and Tomoe is also caught up in a disastrous bid for power. Okio, the smith who made the sword Tomoe now wears in place of her Chinese blades, is killed and wants vengeance. He uses those who own his swords to exact it, four men and Tomoe. One of these men is Kiso Yoshinaka (called "Yoshinake" here) disguised as a ronin, a man pledged as husband to Tomoe by her parents (much to her disgust until she meets him). He has ambitions of ruling Japan as shogun with Tomoe at his side as his equal. His ambition leads him to kill the other three men with Tomoe’s assent which causes Okio to seek vengeance on them both through their swords so even though Kiso achieves considerable power and success with Tomoe as his general, you know it is all going to end in tears, even if you haven’t read Heike Monogatari. Once more Tomoe must journey to Hell, this time to appease Okio and help a half demon child (another legacy from the first novel). To do this she must secure the Golden Naginata, a magical halberd owned by a kirin in a remote temple.
Nearly everyone Tomoe tries to help dies or things don’t turn out as planned. At the end, she is alone except for the Buddhist nun who will take Tomoe’s son to Toshima, now Lady of Shigeno, as Tomoe is now hunted by a victorious warlord who wants to add her to his collection of warrior wives. However, Tomoe has one more duel with someone from her past, again from the first novel.
The third novel is even grimmer as Tomoe’s ‘kiss of death’ seems to be working overtime. As she notes, she is a curse to young lovers. Those she tries to help come to a sticky end, along with assorted felons and friends. Now a wandering nun, a bikuni of the Thousand Shrine sect, she comes to the province of Kanno whose lord is in the thrall of Kuro the Dark, a priest of the Lotus Sect, a beatific cleric with sinister powers who appears to be trying to extirpate the last survivors of six families as part of a plan of vengeance going back over a century and involving the demon-haunted Temple of the Gorge. With her usual awful luck, it turns out one of Tomoe’s ancestors is involved. Things are sorted in so far demons are laid to rest or sent to hell but the body count is high and none of the lovers (human or supernatural) survive as couples. Again at the end, Tomoe must take part in a futile duel.
These are wonderful stories with a rich atmosphere of magic and legend. The feel is of any number of chanbara films, none in particular, as there is a gorgeous cinematic quality about the scenes, especially the duels and the battles. The dialogue, though well written, echoes the rather formal, stilted conversation of subtitled in Japanese movies and the substance is very much from such films with warriors rushing to prove their loyalty or skills in either duels, battles or suicide.
Tomoe is a flawed heroine, proud, impatient and self-willed, though she does learn, even though this doesn’t always translate into improvements in character as she ruefully acknowledges. This is counterbalanced by her loyalty and kindness. The tone of the last book suggests the hero of one of those ‘nihilistic’ samurai film series (such as ‘Nemuri Kyoshiro’, for example) with its air of futility and cynicism set against an exotic background.
The exquisite line drawings by Wendy Adrian Shultz (later Wees) enhance the novels wonderfully.
Jebu, son of a Mongol father and a Japanese mother, is initiated into the Zinja, an order of ninja-like monks and sent to conduct Lady Taniko from Kamakura to Kyoto where she will wed Lord Horigawa, one of the emperor’s council. It is a time of conflict between the rival powerful houses, the Muratomo (think Minamoto) and the Takeshi (think Taira). Jebu’s destiny, as revealed in a dream, is with the Muratomo, though initially he aids the Takeshi to whose faction both Horigawa and Taniko’s family belong. Taniko is a spirited girl who despises her older, sadistic husband and she and Jebu share a special bond forged on that journey. Fate separates them only to bring them together, even in China where Jebu and his Muratomo master, Yukio, go to aid the Sung emperor against the Mongols led by Kublai Khan. Jebu also crosses paths several times with the Mongol warrior who killed his father on the orders of Genghis Khan, and piece by piece he learns of his origins.
This is a wonderful epic tale, well written with well drawn characters, particularly Jebu and Taniko who is strong-willed and resourceful. At first it is easy to dismiss it as one of those pseudo-historicals Japanese history seems to attract in English, with fake names substituted for real ones. One rather suspects the writers either lack confidence or are too lazy to do the necessary research. However, Shea’s research is sound but he has chosen to use this device so as to allow him to conflate two different historical periods in an alternate history: the 12th century Genpei Wars and the 13th century attempted Mongol invasions and he does it well. Nearly half the novel is set in China and the sequences in the Mongol army are fascinating. There is plenty of action in the form of battles plus the occasional duel and things are set up for the conclusion in Lord of the Zinja.
Jebu, Lady Taniko and Yukio have returned to Japan, Yukio with a force of Mongols led by Jebu’s old nemesis, Arghun Baghadur, the murderer of his father. Hideyori, Yukio’s brother, is jealous and angry Yukio has assumed the headship of their clan and plans to destroy him. The Takeshi are defeated, leaving the Muratomo and Hideyori in control. Taniko parts angrily from Jebu when he confesses he killed Kiyoshi, the father of her son. She takes refuge in her father’s house in Kamakura where she becomes involved with Hideyori who promises to make her the most powerful woman in Japan. Meantime, the Mongol fleet assembles for the invasion of Japan.
This continues the epic sweep of the first novel as it fuses people and events from the Heike Monogatari, the Gikeiki and the Mongol Invasions. Taniko remains, for me, the most interesting character, resourceful, dynamic though beset by tragedy. She even gets to do an Elizabeth I at Tilbury routine. She and Jebu have a bittersweet relationship, even at the end they don’t ‘live happily ever after’. He has a mission to carry out (which might have led to a sequel but really there is closure in this novel). But she has her destiny as ruler of Japan.
Last updated May 2016