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...

You can read an extract from the book here.

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.

The final verdict: 10/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe

15 commentaires:

Mike said...

Awesome. I really have no excuse not to read this giant of a novel. :)

Finish off my current reads, and then dive into this one.


newpath said...

If Shogun left you wanting more, I especially recommend Taipan and King Rat out of Clavell's other novels.

Taipan is set in 19th century Hong Kong and King Rat is set in a WW2 Japanese POW camp in Singapore. Both were written before Shogun, have excellent characterization and "worldbuilding", and are almost as excellent.

Of his post-Shogun novels, I'd rate them Noblehouse> Gaijin> Whirlwind.

Stinky93 said...

I rank this up there with Roots and Lonesome Dove(and maybe Pillars of the Earth). All of these books are not to be missed and will stick with you for a long, long time.

Zafri Mollon said...

Fantastic review, but I am a bit wary that a lot of this is hype induced by a recent reading of the novel, especially when you say:
"whose characterization surpasses that of George R. R. Martin."
I don't think there is a living author who can possibly hope to match the complexity of characterization of GRRM in a single novel. I'll still buy this novel, but I'm a bit more wary now.

Steve MC said...

Great to hear this. It's the very reason I've recommended it both here and at GRRM's when people were waiting for Dragon, 'cause it reads very much like the best in fantasy novels.

To anyone reading it the first time, I'd recommend keeping a list of what page each character first appears on, since they sometimes appear 300 pages further on and you might not remember the name.

Actually, you can just copy the list I came up with in my review of the novel here.

Saffron Bryant said...

I absolutely loved Shogun (although I read it about 6 years ago now when I was still in school), and if you enjoyed this then you HAVE to read Clavell's other novels. They all sucked me in and I couldn't put them down. The only exception was Whirlwind.. which I couldn't quite get into (although I'll probably read them all again soon)... One of the things I loved about them is that they carry the families through generations and they reference events in other books- it made the whole world seem that much more real. .. While not quite on the same level you may also enjoy Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd which tells the tale of Salisbury through the eyes of several families, it spans centuries and covers the changing landscape and cultures of England (he also wrote equivalents for several cities around the world)... but I have to agree with you Shogun=10/10

Anonymous said...

I second King Rat. Although I train in koryu bujutsu and have an affinity with the samurai era, I found King Rat more engrossing, especially since I could place the Japanese attitude towards the POWs. One of my koryu bujutsu trainers was a survivor of the Japanese camps, who in a strange turn of events became one of the driving forces between the Dutch-Japanese historical association.

Patrick said...

In light of what has been said, I'm glad that KING RAT, TAI-PAN, and GAI-JIN are on my shelves, waiting for my attention! =)

Matthew MacNish said...

I love Shogun. Even when you consider that's it's a very thin adaption of actual Japanese history, there is no question that it's storytelling at it's finest.

Unfortunately, Pat, I have to warn you against Gai-Jin. It doesn't even begin to measure up.

That said, from what I hear, King Rat is nearly is good, but Shogun is Clavell's one great masterpiece.

Anonymous said...

Gai-Jin and Tai-Pan awesome as well. They really transport you to another time and place I never read Shogun as I had seen the mini-series so many times and loved it.

Anonymous said...

King Rat 0/10
Tai-Pan 0/10
Shōgun 8/10 - really good
Gai-Jin 0/10


John C said...

Pat, Shogun was great wasn't it? Tai Pan is just as good and I recommend you read it next. It belongs chronologically. Set in the mid 1800s? it concerns a trading house and its founder - Dirk Struan - who wars with other such houses while trying to build Hong Kong from the ground up. My description does it no justice.
Then I recommend you get onto Noble House, Tai Pan's immediate successor. Set in the Hong Kong of the 1950/60s, it deals with the direct descendant of Dirk and his 'Noble House'. You get to see exactly what's become of everything Dirk strove for. Its set amidst the tensions of the Cold War, American/British-Chinese antagonism and the volatile economic market place. (Pierce brosnan was in a TV series based on the book, I think.)
Then the rest in any order.
After you've read Clavell, I urge you to read Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth. 12 century? England and everything you love: rich detail, epic sweep, multiple and well-drawn characters, love, sex, murder, political intrigue, woven all around the central element of the work, the building of a great cathedral.

carol said...

Loved, loved, loved this when I was a teenager. I read the others too, had to. I wish I didn't worry now about getting sucked into long epic novels like I did when I was younger. Of course then I didn't have a job or a husband or a kid...

Steve MC said...

Looks like it will be getting plenty of well-deserved attention soon enough:

Fox just announced two very different long-form projects in development based on best-selling books: James Clavell’s classic novel Shōgun and legal journalist Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson are both in the works for “event series” treatment.

“These are both epic stories – one fiction, one fact – that have captivated millions of people worldwide,” said Shana C. Waterman, a senior vp at Fox. “They’re riveting and emotional, with unique historic backdrops that lend themselves to the high-quality, dramatic event series we’re looking to make.”

The projects are dubbed “event series” by Fox instead of the traditional term “mini-series.” The distinction: They’re longer (10 to 12 parts) and could hypothetically extend beyond one season. The shows have notable auspices on board — Shōgun is from producers Michael De Luca (The Social Network) and Nigel Williams (Elizabeth I).

Me, Myself, and I said...

I literally read at least 10 copies of this into shreds--the first being when I was in junior high. Last fall, I finally bought it on Kindle. I re-read it every year, and never tire of it. Your description of how it demands to take over your life until the story is through made me smile. Thanks for a great review of one of my top three most beloved books ever (the others being, in case anyone was wondering, Dune by Frank Herbert and Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay.