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 was one such novel. Indeed, it made for the ultimate reading experience. Awesome doesn't even begin to describe the book. Such were my thoughts when I sat down to write my review for Shogun.
I had been looking forward to sinking my teeth into Tai-Pan. When I booked my flights and got confirmation that I would be flying to/from Hong Kong last winter, I knew that this James Clavell bestseller was coming with me! I thought that it would be interesting to walk around modern day Hong Kong and then read about how it all came to be. Unfortunately, though Tai-Pan is a good and entertaining read, it failed to capture my imagination the way Shogun did. . .
Here's the blurb:
It is the early 19th century, when European traders and adventurers first began to penetrate the forbidding Chinese mainland. And it is in this exciting time and exotic place that a giant of an Englishman, Dirk Straun, sets out to turn the desolate island of Hong Kong into an impregnable fortress of British power, and to make himself supreme ruler…Tai-Pan!
Dirk Struan is a protagonist loosely based on William Jardine and his Noble House is based on Jardine Matheson and Co., a major Scottish trading company which was known as the Jardine Matheson Holdings at the time of the founding of Hong Kong. As was the case with Shogun, the narrative is filled with a wealth of historical details. Once again, the author managed to imbue Tai-Pan with an encyclopedic knowledge pertaining to the culture and history of 19th century China. The novel starts right after the British victory in the first Opium War and with their laying claim to the rugged island of Hong Kong. Political and social upheavals in England and elsewhere in the Empire have repercussions throughout the tale. In terms of worldbuilding, even though it may not be as dense and sprawling a novel as Shogun, Tai-Pan remains a vast, dramatic, and marvelously crafted work of fiction.
James Clavell has a veritable knack for creating memorable characters. Understandably, Dirk Struan takes center stage throughout the book, as he is the only one who fully understands Hong Kong's incalculable worth and he remains the only true architect bent on shaping a commercial future in which the Noble House and the island are intricately linked. Still, as was the case in Shogun, a panoply of points of view from several characters, great and small, add layers upon layers to a very complex story. Again, the tale would never have been the same without the opportunity to witness events unfold through the eyes of men and women such as Culum Struan, Tyler Brock, May–May, Gordon Chen, Horatio Sinclair, and many more.
Weighing in at 732 pages, Tai-Pan is another big book, one which you would think would suffer from occasional pacing issues. Not so, however, as there is enough suspense and unexpected surprises to keep you hooked from start to finish. Although it's a another door-stopper work, for me there wasn't a single dull moment between the covers of Tai-Pan.
What sort of killed the novel for me was its ending. The lack of resolution, with everything literally hanging up in the air and the reader reaching the end of Tai-Pan before the smoke has even begun to clear. Though Shogun was always meant to be part of a much larger whole, it was nonetheless a great stand-alone work featuring a more or less self-contained, if multilayered, story arc. Sadly, Tai-Pan's finale doesn't provide much in the way of answers, I'm afraid. And to make it worse, it raises a decidedly high number of new questions. As such, the book leaves you hanging high and dry, which makes for a big disappointment.
Hence, like Shogun, for the most part James Clavell's Tai-Pan is an epic, captivating, exciting, panoramic, dramatic tale of the Far East. And yet, the anticlimactic and lackluster ending fail to live up to the lofty expectations generated by the novel's immense potential and make for a somewhat frustrating reading experience. For no matter how awesome 95% of the book was, the fashion in which the author brings it to a close robs Tai-Pan of the sort of emotional impact that made Shogun such an unforgettable read.