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The Book Nook


May 30, 2019

Multiple-Genre Adventure

When I was first tried Japanese cuisine, I was struck by the presentation. The meal wasn’t only about how food tasted, but how it appealed to other senses. There was eye appeal in the complimentary shapes and colors artfully arranged on the plate. Delicate, pleasing aromas accompanied each dish and my mouth appreciated the contrasting textures. Sauces has subtle flavors which enhanced rather than smothered or clashed with the food. If pushed to give a brief description I’d say simple yet complex.

Many of the same terms could apply to “Cloud of Sparrows” by Takashi Matsuoka. There’s a simplicity in the storytelling that makes it easy to read, yet complexity in the plot details. There are many characters, but each is given a unique voice to help readers follow the story.

Describing the genre is more difficult – is it a historical fiction, a Western, a romance or a sword-fighting action novel? The answer is yes to all and somehow it works.

The time is 1861, when Japan has agreed to end its isolation and open the doors to allow Westerners to visit. Not all believe this is a good thing and rightfully fear life as they know it will change. Those suspicious of Western motives know swords will be useless against the advanced technology and weaponry of other nations.

But change is inevitable and among the many clamoring to enter Japan are three American missionaries hoping to spread word of their God. The force behind the mission is Zephaniah, a zealously religious man certain of his beliefs and his ability to sway others to his side. Joining him is his fiancée Emily, whose beauty has brought her trouble and danger. They are joined by Matthew, an enigmatic reformed gunslinger.

The trio is aware they have huge challenges ahead, but not that their visit has been foreseen. Enter Lord Genji, a young nobleman who comes from a family that is, depending on your viewpoint, either blessed or cursed with the gift of prophesy. This is a double-edged sword because while others accept his leadership role more easily, knowledge of the future can be an unwanted burden.

Genji has dreamed that an outsider will save his life in the New Year and gives the missionary trio entry into a world that would normally be barred to them. Helping him is Edo’s most famous geisha and Genji’s lover, Lady Heiku. She speaks enough English to ease the communication barrier but cannot help them overcome the cultural shock they feel. They’re alarmed at the violence aimed at Westerners or that people would commit suicide because they dishonored their family.

This violence causes Genji and the others to flee the area, putting them in further peril. Genjii understands that while some of his countrymen support him outwardly, they may actually be plotting against him. One such person not only wants Genji dead, he wants to eradicate the entire clan. This is not a simple matter of clashing personalities, but warring ideologies in a country rich in military culture, court intrigue and violence. The results are an epic battle with a surprise ending that ties it all together.

The author was easily able to bring Japan’s medieval period to life, describing the worlds of Samurai and Zen Masters alike. Takashi also presents Japanese history in a way that’s easy to digest and helps readers understand some of the cultural differences.

His style was serious yet playful and he skillfully weaves a stunning and complex plot that wasn’t difficult to follow. Born in Japan and raised in Hawaii, Takashi depicts characters from the East and West equally well. His ambitious tale is reminiscent of James Clavell’s “Shogun”, but with fewer stereotypes and anti-Eastern sentiment. He treats each character with respect and helps readers care about them as well. Japanese history is explored along with ideas of beauty, life and death, while ancient Eastern traditions, influenced heavily by Buddhist and Zen philosophy, are contrasted with the American and Christian traditions.

This novel didn’t get much attention upon publication or win any awards, but it’s an ambitious debut that has something for everyone. Those who seek action and adventure will find battle scenes and information about the proud samurai tradition, while romance fans will be rewarded with believable characters who deal with love and loss. Mystery lovers will have many schemes to untangle while Western devotees will appreciate the gun-slinging action. Historical fiction buffs will appreciate how feudal Japan is brought to life and may feel transported to another place and time.

If you enjoy this one you may want to look for the sequel “Autumn Bridge”, which was published two


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