Book review: Shōgun

Shōgun.Shōgun by James Clavell.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

When I was a small boy I remember my father having a bookshelf full of hardbacks. And the one I remember most clearly, for some reason, is Shōgun, James Clavell’s 1100-page whopper. I can still recall the smell of it.

I had always been mystified by the book. I remember it being on Dad’s nightstand, with a golf-club bookmark through it. I remember its cover as the first place I ever saw the handle of a Japanese sword. And when I was older, I remember finding endless copies of it at op-shops, usually for somewhere around the two-buck mark.

It was a book that was omnipresent, and always, to me, seemed important, even as hundreds of copies – literally – passed through stores and into landfill. (I assume there’s a calculation op-shops do: shelf space taken versus possible return: Clavell doesn’t do well on those sort of considerations, I suspect.)

This guy never had to buy his literature at an op-shop, I assure you.

So it was a little embarrassing to note that this is the first time I’ve actually read the book. And I didn’t read it in the phonebook-sized paperback edition I had picked up along the way. I read it digitally: but then, I was travelling through Japan.

I’d been looking for something to read that wouldn’t make my eyes roll back into my head. I wanted something epic, because a good epic will thrash you along its byways faster than a taut modernist tale, and because I know that I can’t read Canonical Classics on a plane. (Trust me: I’ve tried with both Orlando Furioso and Decameron and come a gutser each time.) So this was recommended by and old friend, and I figured it was time.

And you know what? It’s perfect travel reading. The chapters aren’t enormous, and the text gallops on. There’s a lot of detail – I imagine in 1975 that the book’s coverage of Japanese customs and history was quite novel. I devoured it while waiting for check-ins, while aboard the Shinkansen, and while en route to places that appeared in the bloody thing. And it was captivating.

Part of me loves this book for the sheer improbability of its genesis: Clavell read a sentence in his daughter’s textbook that said “in 1600 an Englishman went to Japan and became a samurai” and decided that was enough to birth a tome. And that originally, the book was over 2300 pages before being pared back to a slim 1100. It is, if nothing else, a testament to enthusiasm: to the pull of a subject.

(The fact that I wasn’t bored or lost while reading is testament to the pull of Clavell’s words.)

Don’t worry. The book presents it in a more lively fashion.

The story is described in that one sentence, for sure: an Englishman does go to Japan and become a samurai. (Well, a hatamoto, If you’re nitpicking.) But to reduce the work to that is to miss a lot of the more personal parts of the tale. Shōgun is a book that’s about interpersonal relationships as much as it is about slicing opponents with swords. It’s about love – of one’s country, one’s religion, one’s self – and about the things caused by love. It’s about courtly life, about the differences between cultures, and most importantly, about growing. About how challenge changes you, and about how even the end of life can prove instructive.

The writing is solid, and always clear. There’s a lot of characters, but I didn’t become too muddled (as I have with some fantasy tomes requiring their own family trees as appendices). The writing seems a little dated, but that’s also a function of the inclusion of the way politeness, respect and form underpin Japanese life: there is structure and a way things are done, and part of the great pleasure of this book is seeing its lead characters adapt to these rules. Will they bend or break?

Hell, it’s got swords, Jesuits, sea battles and land marches. Beheadings, crucifixions, trade and death poems. Ultimately, though, all these are nothing: because after all, shikata ga nai, neh?

On Reddit, I saw a commenter opine that Shōgun – well, Clavell’s Asian Saga more broadly – was what they suggested whenever someone said they were looking for a new fantasy series. I can see why: it’s like Game of Thrones with better historical connection. Sure, there’s no dragons, but there’s as much backstabbing and bastardry and forbidden love and OH GOD SO MUCH BLOOD as you might see in a Martin work. The difference here is that though the names have been changed, the people they’re based on did exist, and the events they portray were real, historically recorded things. Blackthorne might’ve been called Adams and Toranaga might’ve been Tokugawa Ieyasu – but what’s discussed, the goals they look toward? They existed. And that knowledge – that the book exists in a delightful space of imagined (though not necessarily alternate) history – is deeply beguiling.

To me, at least.

YOU KNOW IT.

I’m keen to read the rest of the Saga at some point. (And to check out the 1980s adaptation because TOSHIRO MIFUNE!) And I know that I’m reading chronologically rather than in order of publication, so it’ll be interesting to see how the level of polish changes when I hit something like King Rat, which was written first.

But hell, if it’s as detailed and enjoyably swashbuckling as Shōgun, I can’t envision any complaints.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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