Monday, February 17, 2020

Shogun by: James Clavell

Historical fiction is not a genre which I often read, not for any adequate reason other than it doesn’t pique my interest.  The past of course can be just as fantastic and thought provoking of any fantasy or science fiction, so there really isn’t much of an excuse for my neglect of the genre as a whole, so when I was gifted Shogun by James Clavell I was intent on giving it a fair shake as an entry point into the genre.  This perhaps was a rather daunting task: clocking in at 1,300 pages Shogun can only accurately be described as a historic epic depicting the culture clash in seventeenth century Japan when British pilot Paul Blackthorne is marooned on the islands and forced to integrate into the culture.  Clavell has clearly done his research when it comes to the historic setting and he has implemented a plot which closely follows actual historical events, with some exaggeration and artistic license, yet on the whole things remain accurate.  This is especially impressive when you realize that the novel was released in 1975, meaning that there is a sheer amount of time spent ensuring that the details were correct.  This doesn’t mean that Clavell’s writing is perfect by any means, Shogun is a novel which suffers from going overboard on the epic nature of the story.  When you really start to examine the story contained in the 1,300 pages, you begin to notice some real flaws with the style that Clavell employs and the sense of flow from one event to the next.

What I mean here is that while Clavell follows Blackthorne as he is introduced to Japanese culture at the same time and pace as Blackthorne, learning the intrinsic details of how the culture functions, how foreigners are expected to behave, and various other cultural aspects.  The issue with this, however, is not the dense nature of the culture, but at several points in the novel where events and aspects of culture are repeated, or introduced when the focus is not on Blackthorne.  This gives these passages away from Blackthorne’s perspective to often seem unnecessary, even when they clearly aren’t for other events.  Removal of these non-diegetic explanations in many cases would not only assist in the flow of the novel, but also assist in bringing down the page count.  That isn’t to say the large amount of the book is too much of a problem: Shogun is a novel that tells an epic story about how a man is brought to the worst point in his life and has to find a way to survive in this foreign land.  Clavell should also be praised for presenting a nuanced look at the Japanese culture of the 1600s with regards to gender and sexual politics, religious politics, and their general stance on their place in the world.  A lesser author would automatically insert his own opinions on this culture in keeping with the cultural norms that they know, which Clavell avoids.  Generally, he allows the culture to speak for itself which assists in making Shogun work as a novel for a modern audience.

Where the novel excels is in its intense political and character drama.  Clavell uses Shogun to show just how people can overcome there preexisting notions of other cultures on all sides and really explores all of his players.  Overall, Shogun is a 1,300 page epic that’s merit can be easily digested and provides at least a riveting time.  It isn’t a book that would be suitable for everyone, though most will enjoy quite a lot of the plot and characters presented by Clavell, earning at least a look to see if it’s right for you.  8/10.

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