Cloud of Sparrows is set in 1800s Japan as the age of the Samurai declines
Cloud of Sparrows #1 by Takashi Matsuoka
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published 2002, 560 pages
I really enjoyed this sweeping saga that tells the story of Genji, a Great Lord samurai in 1800s Japan. There's action, philosophy, a little romance, battles & subterfuge, political maneuvering, history and excellent writing.
Genji is a forward-thinking Great Lord and willing to give Outsiders (Americans, British, French) some leeway and attempt to learn from them.....he sees the end of the Samurai way. The book explores his past with stories of his ancestors, and the potential future via his prophetic visions (a small touch of magical realism in an otherwise historical setting). His clan's ability of prophecy is a theme throughout the book - both when they're right and when they guess wrong, as well as how they use the reputation of prophecy to control or influence others (that's an interesting societal examination!). When being told about his "gift" as a child,
"This is not a matter of use or no use, of good or evil, of choice or no choice. Those are only labels, not the thing itself. ... Gift or curse, wanted or unwanted, you have it. You cannot ignore it any more than you can ignore your own head."
In the present day he meets and helps a couple of Outsiders who become friends and his vassals accept them because he does. The storyline with the Outsider missionaries is an interesting way to contrast the two cultures at that time. I found it interesting that the two main female characters are both frequently described as beautiful - in their culture. Whenever the Japanese refer to Emily, the American female, it is with disgust at her unpleasant body proportions and unappealing skin and hair color. When Americans consider the gorgeous geisha Heiko, their reaction is similar....they see no beauty in her "otherness". In a conversation with a Lord Samurai, Heiko is told:
"Lack of fear is not the mark of courage. It is the mark of idiocy. Courage is knowing fear and overcoming it. Sometimes, especially when he is young, a samurai will cover his fear with arrogance."
There's a touch of humor here and there throughout the story, keeping it from taking itself too seriously. Genji definitely has a sense of humor and teases his bodyguard and Heiko, his lover. I particularly enjoyed the section where, in order to try to make the visiting Outsiders more comfortable, Genji has chairs and tables provided. The description of him attempting to sit in a chair and how uncomfortable it makes his spine and compresses his organs made me laugh.
"When we let ourselves see only what we expect to see," Genji said, "we view the contents of our own minds and miss what is truly before us."
Sometimes too many characters can get confusing or derail a story. This book has a list of characters at the beginning and that's usually a signal to me that I'm going to struggle to keep everyone straight at some point. Though there a quite a few characters, it was easy enough to keep them straight because their personalities were well formed and their stories were clear and each very different.
It's a great story with historic touches that make it seem real and well researched (which I don't know if it really was or if it's just a great imagination). Though it's a high page count at 560, it doesn't read like a hefty tome; it's engaging and with few exceptions, moves right along. I read Shogun years ago and my memory is that it was an excellent read - this feels in the same vein but.....lighter somehow. Since I read Shogun easily over 20 years ago, that's strictly an impression not backed up by facts! :)