Shogun: Exotic, enlightening, entertaining

James Clavell’s 1966 bestseller, Tai-Pan, was a whopping novel.

a drawing of a samurai sword on the cover of Shogun
This often-read library copy of Shogun  is coming apart.

Shogun is monumental.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a ship has washes up in Japan. Her pilot, James Blackthorne, had hoped to be the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, wrest control of Oriental trade from the Spanish and Portuguese, and make himself very rich.

The Japanese think Blackthorne a barbarian; Catholic priests see him as a heretic.

Until the heir to the throne is old enough to assume his lawful position, Japan is being ruled by five feudal lords, none of whom trusts the others.

Only of the five,  only Toranaga sees any value in keeping Blackthorne alive.

Like the skilled falconer he is, Toranaga bends Blackthorne to his will: Blackthorne must learn to speak Japanese and become Japanese.

None of the Japanese characters is what he or he appears to be.

The plot twists and turns and stands on its head as the five lords, their wives, consorts, and relatives vie for control, always polite, always with a sharp knife within reach.

Readers who can bear up under the physical strain of reading Shogun—it’s 803 pages of small print and weighs 3.2 pounds—will find themselves fascinated, informed, and shocked by a surprise ending that, in retrospect, is perfect.

Shogun: A Novel of Japan by James Clavell
Atheneum [1975] 803 p.
1975 bestseller #9. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Sea-Hawk Grabs and Won’t Let Go

Triple-masted pirate ship at sea with mountains in distance
Pirate Ship at Sea

In the first chapter of The Sea-Hawk, Rafael Sabatini whispers the broad outline of his plot just loudly enough that dedicated novel readers will catch it. Tte foreshadowing barely has time to register before Sabatini plunges his 16th century hero into an adventure that shows off his thoughtful, complicated personality as well as his biceps.

The story starts out in traditional romance fashion.

Sir Oliver Tressilian repaired his family’s fortune by preying on the Spanish Armada. Now he wants to marry  but Rosamond’s brother, Peter Godolphin, doesn’t want her to wed a pirate.

Oliver’s half-brother murders Peter Godolphin, then covers the murder by having  Oliver kidnapped and sold as a galley-slave. Oliver’s disappearance looks like an admission of guilt.

When fighters of the Basha of Algiers take the ship, Oliver turns Muslim. His prowess in attacking ships of Christian nations wins him the name Sakr-el-Bahr, Hawk of the Sea.

Learning Lionel is to marry Rosamond, Oliver seeks revenge. He makes a raid on Cornwall to abduct Lionel.

The raid raises questions about Oliver’s loyalty to Islam. The wrong answer would mean death.

The plot sounds rather Errol Flynn-ish, but there’s no hint of central casting in Sabatini’s characters. They react and develop in psychologically plausible ways.

You need not be fan of nautical thrillers, to enjoy The Sea-Hawk. It is worth reading just for its insights into Islamic culture.

The Sea-Hawk
by Rafael Sabatini
1923 bestseller #10
Project Gutenberg EBook #3294

Photo credit: Pirate Ship at Sea by KBlack

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Clichés and cliffhangers fill Helmet of Navarre

Bertha Runkle’s Helmet of Navarre is a thriller set in 16th century France with a new intrigue at every turn of the page and a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter.

France is in turmoil after the murder of Henry III. Huguenots under Henry of Navarre battle the Catholic League led by the Duc Mayenne. After three years’ deliberation, the Duc of St. Quentin has decided to throw his weight behind Navarre, although his son Etienne is in love with the Lorance, ward of the head of the Catholic party.

When St. Quentin openly goes to Paris, which is controlled by the Catholic League, his page, Felix Broux, follows him to the city. His first night, Felix sees three men in a supposedly unoccupied haunted house. He gets in through an unlocked window and drops into a plot to have Etienne kill St. Quentin.

Runkle pulls out every cliché to keep the story going: mistaken identity, secret tunnels, stolen ciphers, and the obligatory disguised hero visiting his girlfriend in the enemy camp.

Runkle’s fast pace keeps readers from noticing the string of coincidences substituting for a plot is too thin to support scrutiny or that the characters are no more substantial than the plot. If readers notice how weak the novel is, that realization won’t come until after they’ve enjoyed swashbuckling entertainment.

Project Gutenberg

Helmet of Navarre
by Bertha Runkle
Illus. by Andre Castaigne
Century, 1901
Project Gutenberg e-book #14219
My grade: B-

©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Agony and the Ecstasy tilts toward agony

Irving Stone’s hefty 1961 novel The Agony and the Ecstasy : a Novel of Michelangelo starts off  with the 13-year-old Michelangelo signing on as apprentice to the leading artist in Florence. In a stunning reversal of normal practice, Michelangelo gets the artist to pay him for the privilege. It’s the most financially astute deal he ever pulls off . Once Michelangelo gets his hands on marble, he forgets all about money for the joy of sculpting.

Stone takes readers on a trip through Renaissance Italy as seen by Michelangelo, whose acquaintances included political leaders like the Medici, popes, writers, the best artists of he day, and a host of other 16th century celebrities.

Stone did extensive research for the novel, as the lengthy bibliography shows. Unfortunately, he tries to put everything he learned into the novel.

Stone packs so much detail into his narrative that nothing stands out.  Stone notes when the artist changes his clothes and what he wears to visit the Pope, but the man himself seems less alive than his statues.

Readers need a thorough grounding in Renaissance history to appreciate the novel, and  then they are likely to find reading it a tough job.

The Agony and the Ecstasy:  A Novel of Michelangelo
by Irving Stone
Doubleday, 1961
648 pages
1961 bestseller #1
My grade: C-

©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni