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Shogun by James Clavell

September 12, 2013


I’m going to start this post by apologizing for the lapse in time between my last review and this one. Life got in the way, as it sometimes does, and I also spent a good deal of time reading a fantastic book called Le Morte d’Arthur Vol. 1 but as the name would suggest, it was only the first volume. It doesn’t feel right to write any sort of review until I’ve finished Volume 2, so look for more on that in the coming months. With that out of the way I want to tell everyone about my latest read, and definitely one of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read – Shogun by James Clavell.

This particular choice came as a recommendation from a friend and the praise was so high I felt I had to pick it up immediately (that’s why I only got through Volume 1 of the Arthurian lore). It did not disappoint. Everything about this book was spectacular and breathtaking. It’s going to be hard to put it all into words, since the book itself is 1152 pages, paperback, but I will try. The best thing you can do is pick up this book and read it for yourself. I hope to have fully convinced you of this by the end of my post.

One of the best things about this book for me was the time period in which it was set. The novel begins with the crash landing of a Dutch ship on the Japanese coast around the year 1600. This was an extremely interesting time in terms of European colonization in the New World (meaning North and South America), and the political scene in Europe itself. Countries, kings, and religions were all at war on the continent, which translated to open hostility and violence anywhere Protestants and Catholics found themselves together, like the colonies, at sea, or even Japan.

Initially, the narrative focuses on the Dutch ship’s pilot, an Englishman named John Blackthorne. As a pilot he is trained to be a shrewd observer and maintain an expansive memory of details. This makes him the perfect character through which to tell the story. The language barriers between Westerners and Japanese permeate the story and the subtle differences in meaning and understanding in even ordinary interactions are described in  fantastic detail. Added to the already difficult cultural clashes are the presence of the Portuguese Jesuit clergy in the country attempting to convert an unwilling populace, and a brewing war in the complex folds of Japanese politics. All of these elements interact, disagree, scheme, and collude, both with and against each other. The plot is rich and complicated. It’s really no mystery how this story takes up over 1100 pages!

Besides being an incredible story of politics, power, religion and culture, this book is also simply beautiful. I loved the descriptions of the simple elegance of Japanese culture, especially as it clashed so dramatically with the dirty, unhealthy practices tendered in the western world at the time. Respectful descriptions of cultural intricacies such as flower arranging, the tea ceremony, poetry, and an individual’s connection with nature were masterfully described. The language used was a reflection of these cultural elements – sparing but profound. All these were mixed in with the general plot line and it was a pleasure to read.

I have so many good things to say about this book and I’m only just realizing all the ways it was exceptional as I try to write about it. I’ll restrict myself to one last element that I thought made this book excellent: the characters. Shogun has no fewer than ten main characters and an awesome cast of actors on both small and large scales moving with the plot through the year between when Blackthorne lands in Japan, and the start of all-out war between the Japanese feudal lords. With so much action going on I’m amazed at how multi-dimensional all the characters became over the course of the novel. Some writers never flesh out a single character as much as Clavell has done for each and every player in the story. This is definitely one of the novel’s strongest points and gives the entire saga so much more depth.

I would recommend this book to everyone. It’s beautiful and vivid. The story moved me deeply and I loved every page of this book. It’s hard to describe exactly what made it so excellent, since there’s so much that happens and it’s brilliantly told from so many perspectives, but I would encourage you to read it for yourself and let me know what you liked best.


From → Fiction

  1. When Shogun first was published, everyone I knew was reading it. I swear we all became Japanese. It was a total immersion experience. Great book.

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