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Shogun: A Novel of Japan - James Clavell

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Author: James Clavell / Genre: Fiction

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      04.05.2006 20:16
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      A truly awesome piece of literature

      Shogun is a story of immense scope, power, and emotion by one of the finest historical novelists of our time, James Clavell. I think this was the first book of his I read (though it may have been Taipan, and I've re-read it several times since, despite its immense size (if the thought of a book with well over a thousand pages makes you shudder, this is not the book for you!).

      I've always loved books that you can completely immerse yourself in - one with believable and interesting characters that you care about, drama, suspense, and an epic storyline. Shogun has all of these in abundance.

      The Story
      --------------

      Set in Japan in 17th century, the plot revolves around the English ship's pilot John Blackthorne (he becomes known as Anjin - the Japanese for "Pilot">, whose ship crashes on the coast of Japan. He and the remainder of the crew find themselves prisoners of the local feudal lord Omi, and his Uncle (and higher feudal lord) Yabu. They experience first-hand the cruelty of their captors, and in the end only Blackthorne survives. But Yabu has plans for him as a gift to his own liege lord, who is one of the highest 5 lords in the whole of Japan.

      If one Lord can rise above all others he can petition the Emperor for the position of Shogun - effectively making him the most powerful person in Japan - the emperor would effectively be forced to accede to the request. That's where the book's title comes from, and the driving force behind the rest of the plot as Blackthorne becomes embroiled in a complex game of politics, religion (both the indigenous Shinto and the Catholics, who have the trade monopoly there, are extremely concerned that if he could get back to England, a swarm of Navy ships would be on their way to capture the treasure-laden "Black Ship", which carries all the wealth generated from Japan back to Portugal, but would be no match for a well-equipped warship), and love.

      The Characters
      ----------------------

      The characters are many and varied, and they have their own complex thought processes that remain consistent throughout. Nothing any of the characters do seems out of place as you are reading.

      More interesting than the characters themselves, however, is the interplay between them. Particularly interesting was the grudgingly respectful rapports between Blackthorn and the Portuguese Black Ship's Captain Rodriguez, and the Jesuit Priest. The different feudal lords have differing characteristics, and try to play their strengths and weaknesses against each other. All the characters are totally believable and you do care what happens to them.

      There are a few peripheral characters that don't really have speaking parts, such as an assassin and a bunch of ninjas. These are well portrayed and add to the story despite not actually saying anything.

      Locations
      --------------

      The story takes you all over Japan, from the beach of the small village where the ship crashes in the first place to the mighty castle in Ishido. They are all explained in some detail (though not so much that it becomes boring to read) and Clavell has obviously taken great pains in his research to get everything spot on. You have a real feeling of "being there" as you read.

      The background is set not only by the physical locations but also the feudal / religious / ethical systems, which are shown in action in people's everyday life, which is so much better than simply having them described to you. As Blackthorne is required to learn Japanese, you as the reader will even pick up some of the language as you go.

      All in all, for atmosphere it is one of the best books I've ever read.

      Plot Development
      -------------------------

      There are so many layers of plot that it staggers the imagination. Each character has a different agenda, as various loyalties conflict and difficult decisions have to be made. It doesn't matter how many times I read the book, it's completely gripping and compelling each time, and there always seems to be something new to find in it.

      Some themes are opened at the beginning of the book and are only settled at the end, some are brought in and resolved quickly, others are seen in brief flashes and you only realise how important these small points were when you see the conclusion of it. It's pretty much as complicated as real life!

      It's a long book, if you're a slow reader like me and you don't have a lot of time to read then you may find yourself immersed in this for several months. But it will be well worth it. If you leave it too long between reads though, you'll have to review the previous bit so you can catch up on what's happened so far.

      The Writing
      ----------------

      It's exceptional. There's no other word for it. This is as near as you will ever get to actually travelling in time and space back to Japan of this period. The story is breathtaking in scope but minutely detailed as well. Some have called Clavell a "Master Storyteller".

      Personally, I think that's underplaying it a bit. He is an all-time great of literature.

      The only bad points are fairly frequent use of bad language and free use of sexual language on some occasions. Obviously this rules out the young or easily offended for reading this book. It's a shame that it's there but is never gratuitous - Clavell uses these things to help paint the picture of what things were really like in Japan at that stage in the country's history.

      Final Verdict
      ------------------

      Vast, complex, involving

      An epic work of fiction - and genius

      Not for the young or easily offended due to some of the language and sexual content

      If you don't like long books, this is not for you!

      Unparalleled as an historical action thriller.

      Availability
      ---------------

      I was quite stunned to find that, though there are several editions listed on Amazon, it was only being sold on the Marketplace - with vastly differing prices. Big bookstores like Waterstones are pretty sure to have it (and the rest of Clavell's Asian Saga - Shogun is the first in this series). If they haven't, shame on them!!

      (( UPDATE of above - my mistake, they're selling a paperback version for £7.19 - hadn't found it when I previously posted this review on Ciao. ))

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      One of the great page turners of all time.