By Giles Milton
If I were to tell you a story about an English sailor who sails halfway around the world, surviving scurvy and starvation to arrive half-dead in Japan, only to befriend the shogun, become the first Caucasian samurai, and open trade relations between England and Japan, you'd probably think I was making it up. But then, I'm not telling it nearly as well nor with as much detail as Giles Milton in his book Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened Japan.
Milton's book recounts the life and adventures of William Adams, the title figure who, indeed, became an influential member of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu's court, and helped establish the first English trade factory in Japan. But while Adams' life is a great story in itself, Samurai William provides a much broader view. Milton also goes into the history of the European East India companies in Asia and Oceania, the political turmoil at the beginning of Japan's Edo period, and the lives and struggles of the other men at the English factory. The complete picture is one of drama and adventure, presented with some great storytelling.
What struck me most about Samurai William was the sense of how Japan was both impressive and utterly foreign to its European visitors. It's something that you continue to see in Western attitudes toward Japan and its culture, but coming at it from the perspective of men for whom Japan was truly an unknown adds a whole new level, especially considering the relative levels of sophistication of Japan and England in 1600.
I think anyone with an appreciation for history and a good story will enjoy this book. Samurai William manages to both inform and entertain, which, in my book, puts it in the same class as all the best histories.
Started: 6/2/2010 | Finished: 6/18/2010
The Books of the South: Tales of the Black Company
By Glen Cook
After how much I liked the first volume in this series, I can't believe it took me over a year to pick up the next one. I guess that's just a testament to how long my reading list has gotten.
I should note here that this review will contain some information that could be seen as spoilers if you haven't read the first collection.
The Books of the South is the second omnibus of Glen Cook's Black Company novels. The first two of the included stories--Shadow Games and Dreams of Steel--picks up just after the events of The White Rose. With the Company reduced to just a handful of men, the new Captain decides to turn south to try to return to the group's origin, the city of Khatovar. Along the way, they are swept up into a new battle between the once-pacifistic nation Taglios and its would-be conquerors, the Shadowmasters. Old enemies resurface, and a dark secret is hinted at in the Company's lost history.
Unlike the previous volume, though, this one does not collect a single narrative. Instead, the third novel (The Silver Spike) is a standalone novel that takes place in parallel with the events of Shadow Games. The plot here revolves around a group of small-time criminals who hatch a scheme to steal the titular spike--within which is imprisoned the soul of the Dominator--and sell it to the highest bidder. The Black Company itself isn't involved in the main action; rather, it's the White Rose and her companions--who split off from Croaker and his band at the end of the previous volume--who are left to deal with the problem.
As much as I liked The Chronicles of the Black Company, I expected to be able to jump right into this volume and pick up where I left off. I found, though, that this story was a slower burn. There's a more personal, less epic feel to most of the narrative--the Shadowmasters, for example, seem a pale shadow of the Dominator and Lady of the first arc. Still, I found that I was pretty hooked by the end of Dreams of Steel, which made the cliffhanger ending somewhat frustrating. I'm not sure I can say that this volume was as effective for me as the first, but in any case I'm still looking forward to the next one.
Started: 5/12/2010 | Finished: 5/28/2010