My interest to date in samurai has been close to zero, my tolerance for violence and gore minimal (Game of Thrones had me running in the opposite direction), and being a pacifist I usually find books with endless descriptions of battles and war plans tedious. Yet all of this went out the window when I started Pamela S. Turner’s Samurai Rising. Immediately I was besotted, eager to return to it when I was forced to put it down to do other things, fascinated by the topic, taken by the exciting storytelling, appreciative of Turner’s way of addressing the issues of research; all in all it was a riveting read.
The very real story of a famous Japanese samurai,Yoshitsune, Samurai Rising is also Turner’s journey as she sifts through all the stories to see what is true and what is not; it is the story of pride and vengeance, of politics; it is one view of Japan in the late twelfth century. Turner does a remarkable job making a complicated story accessible to young readers (not to mention much older ones like myself). Aware of just what will be confusing, she works to help distinguish similar-sounding names, provides the bricolage of setting, elegantly slipping in “surely” and “probably” when necessary to both show there is no way to know for sure and to still provide the story of small tidbits of information to help the reader imagine what things actually looked like and felt like.
One of the many things I liked about the book was Turner’s way of slipping in wry and pithy comments here and there to clarify. Say on Page 19 when after a paragraph culminating in a quote describing the military brilliance of Yoshitsune’s great-grandfather, she had a short one sentence paragraph: “No pressure, Yoshitsune.” Or how about on Page 127 when she writes, “You know strife has gone on too long when even the samurai are sick of violence.”
The end notes are fascinating as Turner uses them to not only indicate her sources, but to add in more information that she couldn’t squeeze into the main narrative. There’s a lengthy bibliography and even more information on Turner’s website, including some very interesting videos for those that want to get a sense of kendo and the dance done by Yoshitsune’s lover as described by storytellers and then Turner in the book. There are maps throughout the book to help readers get a spatial sense of what is happening, a helpful cast of characters at the beginning, and an index. Finally there are Gareth Hinds’ dark and brooding illustrations, capturing the movement and drama and ominous nature of the history being told.
One of my favorite books of 2016 so far, I recommend it highly.