We have a modern classic to talk about today. With its own old, and now new, TV miniseries. So without further ado...
My reviewer criteria. I like light, entertaining novels. I like smaller scale stories rather than epics. I like character focused novels featuring pleasant characters, with a minimum number of unpleasant ones. I greatly value clever and witty writing. I like first person, or close third person narratives. I dislike a lot of "head jumping" between POVs and flashbacks. I want a story, not a puzzle. While I am not opposed to violence, I dislike gore for the sake of gore. I find long and elaborate fight, action, and battle sequences tedious. Plot holes and things that happen for the convenience of the author annoy me. And I fear I'm a born critic in that I don't mind pointing out what I don't like in a story. However, I lay no claim to be the final arbitrator of style and taste, you need to decide for yourself what you like or dislike in a book.
Your opinions are always welcome. Comment below.
Shogun by James Clavell C+
I never watched the old miniseries, but the impression I had about the book was that it was about a western seaman shipwrecked in Japan and becoming enmeshed in Japanese culture of the 16th century. Which is an element of it, and while it may've been the focus of the original miniseries, it is not really the focus of the book. Blackthorne, the English pilot of a Dutch ship is merely the hook to draw in western readers of this novel, and the window into 17th century Japanese culture that Clavell illuminates in the story; its culture, philosophies, and politics. The main character of the book is a historical Japanese noble, Lord Toranaga, who at this point in history has designs on becoming the ruler of all of Japan, the Shogun of the title, though he denies it. Being an almost 1,200 page novel, with an intricately plotted semi-fictional story grafted into known history, it is impossible to do the plot any justice by attempting to summarizing it. So I won't. I will say that it is a very impressive work of research and storytelling which earns it the "+" I gave for it. Ultimately however, it only earned a C grade from me for three main reasons.
First, and one I can't blame the author for, is that the story desperately needs a map of 17th century Japan to give the reader some idea of what was going on politically. I read a library copy of the mass market paperback (with tiny 6pt. type) so other editions have one. But if they don't, it's a glaring fault. Much of the meanings of the political actions that take up most of the story is lost without such a map. And while you could probably find that backstory, perhaps with maps on the internet these days, those sources would also spoil the story, since this is a historical novel, not a novel of alternate or counterfactual history. At least that is what I feared. And if you do look up sources to supply things like maps, and perhaps character background, you'll discover how the main story ends (though off screen in the book).
By the same token, since Clavell had to fit his story within known history, without altering it, if you know anything about Japanese history, you will have a clue as to the fate of Blackthorne, who I gather is based on a real historical person, as well as Lord Toranaga. Strangely enough, if you even know a little about Japan, Clavell spoils the ending himself simply because he can't keep himself from educating the reader on Japanese culture by introducing the invention of the role of the geisha girl in Japanese society.
The second, and more significant reason for my C grade is it's length and complexity. I found it simply too long, and too politically intricate, for me with little knowledge of Japan going into this book. That said, I generally like long books, and love learning history from a fictional book, George MacDonald Frazer's Flashman books are a perfect example of a mix of real history and fiction. And I certainly enjoyed learning about Japanese culture from this book and how it compared to the European society of the period. So much so that by the time I reached the last 200-300 pages of the story, I was quite Japanese. But more on that in a bit. However, after a week of reading it, I was feeling the fatigue of all the intricacies of Japan and period history that Cavell was spoon feeding me. It delved too deeply into the weeds with too many point of view characters, some of whom seemed to be brought in merely to introduce us to one or another aspects of either European or Japanese society or history. I also grew weary of all the endless schemes and ploys of both Blackthorn and Lord Toranaga, many of which come to naught, over and over again. In short, for me, there was too much information for the plot to carry.
And thirdly, as I said above, I had become very Japanese by the time I reached the last third of the book. How so? Well, in this period in Japan, life was cheap. The samurai class could chop up anyone, other than a samurai, on a whim. They solved a lot of problems that way; killing people, including their parents, wives, children, and when honor or a casual order from their superiors demanded it, themselves. In this story many of the characters were simply waiting for the opportunity and excuse to kill a rival in order to advance, or to kill themselves in order to escape this vale of tears. Death was an escape. And many characters escaped, like it or not, that way. But, you see, that's just karma. So by the time I was reaching the last third of this book, I no longer cared what happened to any of the characters, including Blackthorne, Whatever happens, happens, it's just karma, eh? Whatever... And well, Japanese mind-frame or not, when I'm that indifferent to the fate of the main characters in a story, an average grade is about all the story can expect to get from me.
All that said, give it a try. Don't let my objections keep you from giving this book a try if you are one of the few who haven't read it already and are interested in Japan and undaunted by its length. You may well like it, and like it a lot. Millions have. You will certainly find yourself immersed in a very strange and fascinating world, engaged in an interesting, if by the end wearisome narrative, and learn a great deal in the process. Who needs dragons and magic to live in a strange and magical world, when you have history?
There is a new miniseries just starting on I believe Hulu in the states, Disney + outside of it. I only watched the trailer and thought it looked far too dark and gloomy. I guess that's how they film things now days. I would've filmed the story in rich colors; the greens of the land, the blues of the sea, the rich colors and intricacies of the clothing and housing -- in short, a very pleasing landscape to emphasize the fact that only its characters are vile.