Very rarely, there comes a novel so grand in scope, so rich in historical details, so vibrant, so engrossing, that you basically lose track of everything else around you. James Clavell's international bestselling masterpiece Shogun is one such novel. Simply put, Shogun makes for the ultimate reading experience. Awesome doesn't even begin to describe the book.
People from my generation will recall the TV series from the 80s. As a young teenager I gave the novel a shot, but I wasn't ready for something this big, this multilayered, and I don't think I ever finished it. I've been meaning to read Shogun for years now, and twice I brought the book with me on one of my long trips abroad. But for some reason, I never went for it. The more fool me, of course. The earliest installment in James Clavell's Asian Saga is doubtless one of the very best works I have ever read. It could well be the best.
From the beginning, Shogun is the sort of novel that captures your imagination and refuses to let go. Your mind is seized completely and can't think of anything else. It's the sort of work that you don't just read; you actually live it, making it an unforgettable reading experience. If you are meaning to read Clavell's beloved bestsellers, know that Shogun will find ways to take precedence over everything in your daily life. Prepare yourself for several late nights and cancelled meetings. Sporting events will become meaningless until you reach the end of the novel, as will your regular leisurly activities. Yes, Shogun is that absorbing.
Here's the blurb:
A bold English adventurer. An invincible Japanese warlord. A beautiful woman torn between two ways of life, two ways of love. All brought together in an extraordinary saga of a time and a place aflame with conflict, passion, ambition, lust, and the struggle for power...
James Clavell was inspired by the story of William Adams, the first Englishman to travel to Japan and the first one to become samurai. Habitually, authors who have an extraordinary passion for history often have a hard time weaving that richness of details seamlessly into the narrative. Info-dumps and superfluous discussions often disturb the flow of such novels, as authors are unable to create an adequate balance between historical accuracy and the various plotlines. Not so with Shogun. It is an unbelievable feat how Clavell managed to imbue this work with an encyclopedic knowledge pertaining to the culture and history of feudal Japan in the early 1600s. Although set in Japan, this sprawling novel is about so much more. I loved how the schism that split Catholics and Protestants finds itself as the heart of the tale. How the seperation of the New World discoveries was done between Spain and Portugal and the repercussions this had in Asia are brought to the fore. I also loved how the machinations of the Jesuits in Japan and Macao also shape the tale that is Shogun. True, the book is all about Japanese culture and history. But it is also about how the country elected to deal with the outside influence of the European superpowers of that era. Beyond the incredibly multilayed storylines, Shogun is all about the various facets of medieval Japan; its people, its traditions, its laws, and everything else in between.
Shogun was first published in 1975, nearly 40 years ago. My biggest concern when I finally sat down to read it was that perhaps the book had not aged well. Four decades is a long time and the literary landscape has dramatically changed during that span of time. I don't know if it's because the novel is set in feudal Japan and Clavell wanted readers to immerse themselves in that setting, but Shogun, with its intrigue, love, adventure, action, violence, sex, and its memorable cast of characters, reads like anything released in the 21st century. Moreover, weighing in at more than 500,000 words, one rarely encounters such a vast, dramatic, and marvelously crafted work of fiction these days.
The characterization is phenomenal. I can't think of another book that features such a remarkable cast of protagonists. It was a bit confusing at first, for Clavell jumps from one POV to the next without any break in the narrative. But as soon as you get used to this quirk, then everything works perfectly. At the beginning, one would think that it would be John Blackthorne's tale, as he and his crew get stranded in Japan. And yet, although the one who'll come to be known as Anjin-san takes center stage for the most part, a panoply of points of view are responsible for making Shogun such an irresistible reading experience. Many characters, great and small, add layers upon layers to a decidedly complex story. Needless to say, the tale would never have been the same without the opportunity to witness events unfold through the eyes of men and women such as Toda Mariko, Yoshinaga Toranaga, Rodrigues, and Father Martin Alvito. There are several interesting "East meets West" moments throughout the book, both perceived from the Japanese and the Europeans POVs. In a stunning feat of execution, James Clavell wove these characters and their plotlines into one grand tapestry that never fails to impress.
With a page-count of 1152 pages, one would think that there would be occasional pacing issues throughout the novel. But there is enough suspense and shocking twists to keep you hooked from start to finish. Although it's a veritable door-stopper work, for me there wasn't a single dull moment within the pages of Shogun. Indeed, it's the sort of book you wish would never end. At times dark, at time passionate and beautiful, Shogun is about as good as it gets.
And because the book is set in medieval Japan, I'm persuaded that it could satisfy any demanding speculative fiction readers looking for a quality read. Imagine a work whose worldbuilding rivals that of Steven Erikson, whose characterization surpasses that of George R. R. Martin, and whose historical richness is as good or better than Neal Stephenson's. Yes, it's that damn good! I have a feeling that countless SFF fans would be enthralled by this tale of intrigue, as Japan finds itself on the brink of civil war. And if any of you guys think that Littlefinger and Varys are crafty, wait till you get a load of Toranaga!
Captivating, exciting, panoramic, dramatic, James Clavell's Shogun is a mesmerizing tale of love and war that deserves the highest possible recommendation.