When the folks at Anchor Books got in touch with me to see if I'd be interested in reviewing Sword of Honor, an epic historical novel chronicling the saga of of Musashi Miyamoto, one of the greatest samurai in Japanese history, my curiosity was piqued. And since I hadn't read the first volume, Child of Vengeance, they were happy to send me a review copy. That book garnered rave reviews and is considered the best work on feudal Japan since James Clavell's Shogun.
You may recall that I gave Clavell's classic a perfect score, so I was excited to give Child of Vengeance a shot. And even though David Kirk's debut may not be as dense and compelling as Shogun, it is nonetheless a brilliant work of historical fiction that delivers on all fronts.
Here's the blurb:
Japan in the late sixteenth century was a land in turmoil. Lords of the great clans constantly vied for position, generating countless tales of scheming and intrigue. Bound by a rigid code of honour, the aristocratic samurai were left to execute their lords' designs whatever the cost. Death defined these warriors' very existence; they could be commanded to die by their lord at any time to prove their loyalty and strength of spirit. A dishonourable end would bring shame upon an entire family - for generations to come. The man would come to be known as Musashi Miyamoto however was almost diametrically opposed to this stance. He spent most of his life wandering Japan without a lord, searching for enlightenment and honing his legendary sword skills. His collection of writings on strategy and bearing in life, The Book of Five Rings, illustrated his thoughts quite succinctly: though he was unafraid of death, he did not long for it; rather, he yearned to be a master of all things by and for himself. But at the age of thirteen, the highborn yet lonely teenager, whose given name is Bennosuke, finds himself deeply disconnected from he rest of his village. His mother died when he was a young boy, and his samurai father, Munisai, has abandoned his son in service to his lord, Shinmen. Bennosuke has been raised by his uncle Dorinbo, a monk of Shinto who urges the boy to forgo the violence of war and embrace the contemplative life. Instead, Bennosuke worships his absent father, who has become a loyal commander in Lord Shinmen's army. Munisai had channeled his long-held anger, guilt and grief into strength on the battlefield - a trait that has helped him ascend the ranks - but shifting alliances outside of his control have left the fearsome warrior indebted to the odious Nakata clan. The escalating consequences of this feud are profound, forcing Bennosuke to confront harsh truths about his family history and his own place within it. Now he must walk the samurai's path - awash with blood, bravery and vengeance - embarking on a journey that will culminate in the epochal battle of Sekigahara, where Bennosuke will proclaim his name as Musashi Miyamoto for the first time.
The historical backdrop of this novel is 17th-century Japan. With an unbelievable eye for details, Kirk's narrative captures the era perfectly. His depiction of samurai culture, with its rituals, beliefs, and unbreakable moral code, imbues this tale with an imagery that brings the traditions of feudal Japan to life on every page. Bennosuke's quest shows how complex and rigid the samurai culture truly was.
Understandably, Bennosuke's POV takes center stage. I found his story to be fascinating, what with him having to choose between following in his father's footsteps and becoming a samurai, or to follow his uncle's advice and become a monk. But fate has a way of complicating matters, and unexpectedly Bennosuke finds himself on a path of violence and revenge. In a culture of immutable principles, the boy's journey, both moral and physical, explores the multilayered aspects of what it means to be a samurai. A disparate supporting cast helps add dimensions to what is already a convoluted tale. Especially the points of view of Dorinbo, Munisai, Lord Shinmen, Kazuteru, which not only shapes the storylines as they progress, but also unveils the truth about Munisai and the death of Bennosuke's mother.
Weighing in at only 322 pages, Child of Vengeance is relatively short novel. Perhaps too short, truth to tell. Some storylines would have benefited from more exposure. Having said that, there is not a dull moment from cover to cover. This tale of betrayal and treachery moves along at a crisp pace, with quite a few surprises along the way!
What essentially starts as a teenager's quest to follow in his father's footsteps and a study of the cunning and violence of the samurai's culture later becomes the tale of an entire country as Japan plunges into war to determine who will be the next Shogun. As such, Child of Vengeance is an introduction that establishes the protagonists and lays the groundwork for what will come next in the story of the boy who will become the renowned Musashi Miyamoto.
David Kirk is an exciting new voice in historical fiction, and I'm looking forward to discovering what he has in store for his readers in Sword of Honor. His debut, though short, packs a powerful punch and should appeal to anyone looking for a engaging read.