Book Review: Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune, Pamela S. Turner (2016)

February 3rd, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A bloody good history lesson for kids who don’t usually love the subject.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Minamoto Yoshitsune should not have been a samurai. But his story is legend in this real-life Game of Thrones.

This epic tale of warriors and bravery, rebellion and revenge, reads like a novel, but this is the true story of the greatest samurai in Japanese history.

When Yoshitsune was just a baby, his father went to war with a rival samurai family—and lost. His father was killed, his mother captured, and his brothers sent away. Yoshitsune was raised in his enemy’s household until he was sent away to live in a monastery. He grew up skinny and small. Not the warrior type. But he did inherit his family pride and when the time came for the Minamoto to rise up against their enemy once again, Yoshitsune was there. His daring feats, such as storming a fortress by riding on horseback down the side of a cliff and his glorious victory at sea, secured Yoshitsune’s place in history and his story is still being told centuries later.

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

So this is a first: I do not remember requesting an ARC of this book. I suspect the wishbone button is at play here but, since NetGalley doesn’t have a way of tracking wishes, who knows? It was a stressful summer and fall, and I may have done all sorts of crazy things on the internet that I don’t remember.

Which is my roundabout way of saying that, despite the abundance of katanas and severed heads, Samurai Rising isn’t the sort of book I normally gravitate to. I don’t read a ton of middle grade, and military history mostly bores me to tears. (I’d call Samurai Rising equal parts biography and military history/strategy. But since Yoshitsune is mostly known for his inspired military leadership, that tips the scales more heavily toward the latter.) Though I did skim some of the more strategy-heavy battle scenes (the lack of maps in the ARC made them even more difficult for me to envision), overall I was pleasantly surprised: Samurai Rising is a rather engaging read.

Rife with political intrigue, shifting loyalties, and back-stabbing, Samurai Rising often reads like a centuries-old soap opera. Danger comes not just from rival samurai bloodlines (such as the warring Minamoto and Taira clans that take center stage here), but from within one’s own family as well: nephews are hired to assassinate their uncles, brothers betray brothers, and parents may murder their own children to (re)claim power. Ironically, among Yoshitsune’s small band of closest friends, there was not a single Minamoto to be found; and, despite all he did to help his half-brother Yoritomo ascend to power, Yoshitsune was cast aside – similar to how the Emperor treated their father decades before.

Yoshitsune’s is the ultimate underdog story. After his father’s defeat, then-baby Yoshitsune’s life was spared, but on the condition that he be raised as a monk, far away from the politics of Kyoto. Consequently, he didn’t begin his samurai training until he was fifteen, when he fled his impending religious vows and the life of tedium and anonymity they promised. By comparison, most samurai were finishing up a decade’s worth of training at this age and would be considered war-ready, or nearly so. Likewise, as a member of the opposition force, Yoshitsune often fought with smaller armies and in disadvantageous conditions – such as the famed cliffside attack on the Taira fortress at Ichi-no-Tani. Yet he always managed to rally his men to victory.

(Until he didn’t. If you’re already familiar with Japanese history, you probably know how Yoshitsune’s story ends. I’m not, and it came as a huge surprise. Nearly 40% of this book is comprised of back matter, a fact not immediately obvious in the ARC owing to the lack of a TOC. Thus I didn’t realize I’d reached the end until the last page. To say that I didn’t see it coming is an understatement.)

Even so, it’s disconcerting to see Yoshitsune positioned as the unequivocal hero. In their quest for power and riches, the samurai and monarchy consistently trample on those belonging to lower social classes. As they rampaged across the countryside, samurai ransacked homes, stole food and livestock to feed their armies, and kidnapped peasants to serve them – all while demanding taxes to fund a lifestyle at turns lavish and bloodthirsty. Turner reports that Yoshitsune was a little more humane than most, yet this didn’t stop him from setting fire to trees, fields – and even the homes of commoners – in order to light a midnight attack on the Taira:

For a warrior Yoshitsune was unusually civilized in his dealings with common people. He made sure that his warriors behaved well in Kyoto – no thievery or bullying happened on his watch. Yet he remained a samurai. Samurai didn’t see themselves as protectors of the common people; a peasant had no more “rights” than an ox. So the fires were lit.

Meticulously researched, Turner bases much of her narrative on two sources: The Tale of the Heike, as translated by Helen McCullough and Royall Tyler, and the Azuma kagami (Mirror of Eastern Japan). Yoshitsune “is clearly one of the Heike’s heroes,” which could also explain the bias. That, and no one wants to root for Goliath.

Given the age and general sketchiness of the original texts, it’s no surprise that Turner’s retelling sometimes lacks depth and emotion; centuries dead and buried, their voices gone with them, Turner is often left to speculate about her subjects’ motivations, feelings, and innermost desires. What we’re left with is the who, what, when, and where, but the whys are a little harder to come by.

In this vein, women are predictably absent from the story – save for Yoshitsune’s lover Shizuka, who’s an all-around bad-ass. (Turner describes her as the bravest character in the whole darn book, and I’d be hard-pressed to disagree.) In her copious Author’s Notes, Turner includes a section on the status of women, which I appreciate; but I would’ve liked to have learned even more about Yoritomo’s widow, Hōjō Masako, who had her own son Yoriie strangled in order to prevent him allying with political factions she opposed. As Turner so wryly points out:

Minamoto rule of Japan ended on this fratricidal note. In Yoritomo had left a strong and loyal brother alive to protect his heirs, would history have turned out differently? […]

The Hōjō family was – wait for it! – a minor branch of the Taira.

Still, Samurai Rising is an excellent choice for kids who aren’t too keen on history – but might be swayed with a little action and bloodshed.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: This military biography of Minamoto Yoshitsune, one of Japan’s most infamous samurai, is set in twelfth century Japan.

Animal-friendly elements: Nope.

 

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One Response to “Book Review: Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune, Pamela S. Turner (2016)”

  1. D.J Says:

    Great book review

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