Shogun - James Clavell

Shogun was first published in 1975 and is a HUGE tome, well researched, detailing the situations in feudal Japan of the late 1500s. The characters involved are thinly disguised historical figures, and the main character is based on a real Englishman - Will Adams. I am a HUGE huge fan of Shogun. Those who have only seen the mini-series really need to read the book. It goes into all sorts of layers and sub-layers that aren't even touched on in the mini-series version.

Your basic story is of a Dutch pilot, who becomes known as Anjin, who crash-lands in Japan with his crew. The crew is immediately locked up, but Anjin is brought out to talk with the local samurai. The Portuguese priests are very upset at the thought of English ships reaching their rich treasure-trove of trade. Soon there are political battles between the priests who get great wealth by negotiating with the Japanese, and Anjin who provides the Japanese with a fresh view of world politics.

Along the way, Anjin falls in love with Mariko, who is the wife of one of the archers. The lead Shogun - Toronaga - encourages this romance as a way to keep Anjin under control. Toronaga is in his own battles for control with an arch-rival. So there are many different conflicts going on. The Japanese are fighting amongst themselves for control of the island. They need the Portuguese priests, but don't want to be taken advantage of by them. They want the knowledge that Anjin has - but don't want to risk yet another complex control situation with England.

Anjin begins by seeing the Japanese as a heathen, backwards group of people. But as time goes on, he becomes one of them, appreciating the value of a soak in the bathtub, enjoying the healthy food, appreciating the music and manners and artistry of the culture.

Where other top selling books are usually about sex, violence and drugs, Shogun wraps all of those things in an incredible amount of historical research. Yes, there's some sex. The book loves to highlight the geisha and openness of naked bodies that are found in Japan. There's violence - the samurai are shown as accepting death readily and chop off the head of a villager who does not show respect. People are tortured. I suppose there are no drugs in the story :) But none of these things are put in for a tittilation factor, to bludgeon you over the head. They are all provided in context, to help show visibly the difference between Anjin's view of morality and life and death and the views of the Japanese he now lives with.

The beauty of this book is in the little touches. So many books are written with little care for three dimensional characters and realistic environments. James poured incredible amounts of time and effort into travelling to locations to get the actual details right. He went to the Vatican to make sure he got the details of the church's influence correct. When you read this book, you get an incredibly gripping tale. But not only that, when you are done, you really do know a lot more about an important culture, about why they were the way they were and how people lived and died back then. I think that's an amazing achievement, to have combined historical fact with a well written story involving people you grow to care a great deal about.

Highly recommended.

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Other Notes:
In 1990, Time magazine claimed the book had sold 15 million copies.

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