Top positive review
5 people found this helpful
Impressive recreation of a time and place, but quite hard work
on 2 July 2015
First things first, it's impossible to read this and not admire the effort, research and skill that clearly went into it. On this basis, there's no way I could give it less than 4 stars. The author skillfully combines all the worldbuilding of a fantasy novel with all the detailed research of a historical novel set in a time and place your average English reader is more familiar with. I felt like I learnt a lot about 16th century Japanese people, politics and culture, a subject I previously knew little about. The food, the places and the traditions are lovingly described, so you can both vividly imagine them and long to experience them yourself.
There were also some very good dramatic, romantic and tense moments, and the seemingly main character, an Englishman marooned in Japan, worked really well as both a genuinely sympathetic figure and a great lens for showing the cultural differences and mutual incomprehension between the two countries at the time.
When I picked up the book, I was a little nervous that it would either be a sort of boy's own adventure in which a plucky Englishman saved/educated the barbarians, or else an ultra-romanticized view of Japan. I was relieved that it was actually very well balanced, with each "side" regarding the other as uncivilised, and the narrative making clear that there are good and bad points about each culture, and good and bad people too.
On the more negative side, although I generally prefer to read something I can get my teeth into, this felt a little over-long. Between the huge page count and the dense and complex plot, it took me longer to read than anything I've read in several years, despite the fact that I regularly devour both heavy literary novels and fantasy doorstoppers. And to add insult to injury, after all those hundreds of pages, all those chapters that describe a hawking session or a trip to a spring or the intricacies of a family in loving detail, the book suddenly stops, and the outcome of the final, climactic battle is summed up in a single paragraph. I assumed the other books described as parts of "the Asian saga" were direct sequels, but apparently they are just works loosely linked by the theme of westerners coming to Japan at different times in history.
My other problem was the double-edged sword of recreating a culture that values honourably suicide over survival, and promotes absolute loyalty to feudal lords, right up to the point where you seem able to stab them in the back with total impunity. On the one hand, it was fascinating to read about, but on the other, it made it difficult to really understand or engage with the characters.
Similarly, the constant plotting and scheming was intriguing to some degree, but there was ultimately so much of it that it was hard to root for or be impressed by any one character, particularly as they had all done awful things. I struggled to see what made the man who ultimately comes out on top any different from his rivals, either in terms of morals or of cunning.
Overall, while I did enjoy it, I think this was a book I admired more than I loved. I'd still recommend it to people, but you need to be prepared to put in the effort to get through the length, get in the unfamiliar mindset of the characters and culture, and keep track of all the triple-crossing that's going on.