Review: Shogun: A Novel of Japan

Shogun: A Novel of Japan
Shogun: A Novel of Japan by James Clavell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Picking up this book seemed like a natural choice. I have an acute interest in Japanese History and have lived in the country for the past three years. It is consistently the first book recommended when you search for historical fiction on Japan. So I was hoping for something slightly more rewarding than this excruciatingly long account of the birth of the Tokugawa Shogunate (albeit highly fictionalized).

The first 300 pages drive along fairly well as we become accustomed to the alien environment that Blackthorne finds himself in. It is from there that the story hits an enormous rut, grinding to a pace that makes James Joyce’s Ulysses seem like a quick read. Clavell manages to turn the few hours of an escape from Osaka into a several hundred page slog through every minute movement of each main character (more than a dozen at this point). Needless to say, this portion of the novel gave me a serious case of reader’s block.

The rest of the novel involves a ridiculous number of plot and sub-plots concerning Toranaga’s attempts to gain the support of rival daimyo’s and secure his path to shogun. By the end you’ve lost track of who supports who, who committed treason, who switched sides, and who did or didn’t commit ritual suicide. By the time my eyes were bleeding at the 1100 page mark I was so grateful just to be through it all, promising myself never again read historical fiction on a nation I am too familiar with.

That is really the brunt of my criticism. This is a novel made for armchair travelers with an modest interest in Japan. The linguistic unrealism and nauseating explanations of cultural melange are too much to bare for those of us who have either seriously studied Japanese History or have lived in the country for any period of time.

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