Shogun is an adventure that whips you away into the mind of a European in Japan during the 16th Century. The two main male characters were both figures in history, although Clavell has twisted their relationship to spice his story.

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The novel begins with a Dutch ship on its way back from travelling through the straight of Magellan using a stolen rutter. John Blackthorne, William Adams in real life, is the pilot of this ship. The crew is ill, the weather is atrocious and Blackthorne decides to try and make land in the Japans, a country dominated by the Portuguese, who jealously guard the passage there.

The ship makes it to Japan, but when it arrives, the shipmen are imprisoned — the Japanese lord who owns the land where they came ashore intends to seize their wealth and guns for himself. The lord’s plans are foiled however, as a powerful daimyo steps in and claims the booty as his own. This daimyo, Tokugawa Ieyasu in real life, is one of a council of regents holding power for the son of the former dictator, who in real life was called Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

The European shipmen become pawns in the beginning moves of a massive power struggle amongst the regents that would change Japan forever.

The book is less about the events leading up to the historical battle of Sekigahara and more about Blackthorne’s personal journey of discovery. At first when he arrives, Japanese customs seem strange and brutal to him. Gradually, however, he sees there is a reason for those customs and even grows to prefer some of them to the norms of his native country, England.

This was the second time I’ve read this book. My first reading was sometime during my school years. I think I took more from Shogun with my second reading. I was able to better comprehend why the Japanese characters in the book were so ready to commit seppuku and why the Europeans were portrayed in such an unflattering light. The poetic interludes, such as the death poems and the tea ceremony held by the main female protagonist’s husband also resonated more deeply with me.

The thing I love about Shogun the most is that Clavell makes it so easy to empathise with each of the characters. You begin to see things through their eyes, especially their appreciation of elegance in simplicity and acceptance of life’s karma.

I really enjoyed it and am giving it a 4.5/5.

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