Book Review: Shogun by James Clavell

9/10 Rich history and characters drive this epic.

John Blackthorne is an English pilot to a Dutch ship, the Erasmus, and brings his battered ship and crew to the shores of Japan. There, he is swept up into the plots of warlords and a culture completely alien to him. How can he and his crew survive this strange land and return home?

Story

There are several key elements of Shogun‘s epic story. First, there is the historical depth concerning not only Japan but Spain, Portugal, and England during the period and the conflicts those countries found themselves tangled in, which the foreign characters bring with them to Japan. Shogun becomes a glimpse of the world stage of 1600, told through the lens of the far-from-home Blackthorne. The historical details Clavell explores are exhaustive. Though, there are many fictitious elements, so everything should be taken with a grain of salt. One interesting trick Clavell was able to do by having characters from several different countries, is that everyone views the others as barbarians based on their own values. The Japanese are barbarians to the Europeans, and the Europeans are all barbarians to the Japanese. Clavell is free to explore the racism from each perspective without siding with any as “correct,” and he avoids glorifying the Japanese by electing to show us the bad sides of their culture as well. No one walks away clean here; we see the good and the bad. He keeps strong respect for history throughout (with maybe an exception being for things history recorded as wrong, such as Spanish imperialism and the Inquisition).

As much as I wish action was the next important element, more of the story is focused on the romance of our protagonist and a Japanese woman he meets in the court of Toranaga. We spend a great deal of time with these characters as their relationship slowly blossoms, overcoming several obstacles. Clavell takes his time to give the romance its due weight and care. There is no love at first sight and their cultural differences matter.

Characters

It’s not just the events that are historical, many of our cast of characters are based on real historical figures. The novel is a fictional retelling of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s rise to power and the English pilot William Adams; our Toranaga and Blackthorne respectively. And it’s the depth of the large cast of characters that makes up the third key part of Shogun. From warlords known as daimyo to Spanish missionaries, a humble village headman, and beyond, we learn the motivations, desires, and fears of many different characters. More than anything, this is a character-driven tale. You will be deep inside someone’s head throughout the novel, even if it means glimpsing the dark secret passions and desires of our antagonists. There’s hardly an individual we don’t get to know on an intimate level. The downside is that some scenes bounce back and forth between perspectives, which can be difficult to follow.

Even with the massive cast of characters, major or minor, most of the story is centered on three individuals: Blackthorne, Mariko, and Toranaga. Blackthorne, even as barbaric as he might appear to the Japanese, continues to win people over with his honesty and cleverness. He’s a captivating hero, and it’s always interesting to see how he deals with the many obstacles he comes across. Mariko, too, shows a sharpness that makes her a valuable translator and advisor to Toranaga. She and other women in the story show how the demure stereotype can hide a cunning and tactical mind, more than capable of twisting others to their will. Lastly, perhaps the most clever of all is Toranaga. He shrewdly looks for ways to turn any situation, even the most dire, into an opportunity to get the advantage on his enemies or check his allies. He’s a complex man with the world slowly turning against him, ever careful of who he trusts. I was surprised by how much I related to Toranaga in some ways. I rarely feel that sense of connection to characters.

Writing

There are some ups and downs with the writing. The good: an incredibly detailed history and culture. Clavell will teach you a lot about how Japan worked, or even about the conflict between England and Spain. For the most part, it’s well-paced, assuming you enjoy the historical and cultural detours, of which there are many. Though there were some slow points early on (the crew of the Erasmus especially overstay their welcome when all they do is complain and argue, scene after scene).

However, Clavell is very particular about what he describes to the reader. Kimonos are often described, as well as details about how certain locations might be arranged or furnished (and the reasons why). But if you don’t know what a samurai looks like in full armor, you won’t learn it here. And how large is the city of Yedo? What does the cityscape look like? Clavell won’t give you much on that either. Worst of all, there are many instances where a scene begins with characters talking, and it never pauses to give us where they are or what they’re doing. Maybe he’ll let you know they’re in someone’s house or the castle, but in some cases he falls to white-room syndrome (talking heads in a white, empty space). And for some readers, the liberal use of flashbacks might be difficult to follow. Clavell often interrupts a scene for a flashback to explain something brought up in the current scene, almost as if he’s patching up plot-holes as he comes to them. At least once, a flashback led into a second flashback inside the flashback!

Overall, while I did find his style engaging (except for the white-room problems), I can’t help but think about when the novel came out. Shogun was published in 1975. I recently read The Shining by Stephen King, published in 1977. And yet, The Shining feels like a modern novel (for the most part) that could have been published yesterday. Shogun‘s style is much more dated. But that’s probably in part due to Stephen King as an influential writer who helped mold what modern writing looks like. It’s not Clavell’s fault, but modern readers might have more trouble enduring Shogun‘s estimated 470,000 words if they’re not used to reading older books.

Conclusion

At the bottom is one spoiler that is important for those looking for a historical novel exploring this particular period of history. Those who know may want to know what the novel does with a certain event. If you don’t know your Japanese history, it might not be that important.

For me, this omission bothered me. It seems like a baffling choice. Had it been included, this probably would be a 10/10 for me. It was thoroughly enjoyable, filled with many memorable characters, and detailed well-researched history. There are many subplots, twists and turns, surprises. But, due to Clavell’s choice to only describe some elements of Japan, leaving others effectively blank, I’m not sure how enjoyable it would be for someone who doesn’t know much about medieval Japan. And yet, maybe for some readers, it doesn’t matter if what they imagine is correct or not. Otherwise, for anyone looking for epic historical fiction, Shogun deserves a read.

Spoiler – The Omission

The great battle of Sekigahara, what the entire novel is leading to, what is arguably the most significant battle of Japanese history where Tokugawa successfully created a shogunate that lasted over 200 years… it’s not in the book. The book ends before the battle, and we get a brief paragraph description of what happened. All of that build up to one of history’s greatest climaxes—nothing. The book wraps things up in a bow, assuring that Toranaga will win, then ends.

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