The Samurai of Seville
by John Healey
Publisher: Arcade Publishing
Page Count: 256
Release Date: June 13, 2017
Format: EBook ARC
How got: ARC from NetGalley
First attention getter: the sheer idea!!
A sumptuous novel inspired by one of history’s most intriguing forgotten chapters—the arrival of Japanese Samurai on the shores of Europe.
In 1614, forty Samurai warriors and a group of tradesmen from Japan sailed to Spain, where they initiated one of the most intriguing cultural exchanges in history. They were received with pomp and circumstance, first by King Philip III and later by Pope Paul V. They were the first Japanese to visit Europe and they caused a sensation. They remained for two years and then most of the party returned to Japan; however, six of the Samurai stayed behind, settling in a small fishing village close to Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where their descendants live to this day.
Healey imbues this tale of the meeting of East and West with uncommon emotional and intellectual intensity and a rich sense of place. He explores the dueling mentalities of two cultures through a singular romance; the sophisticated, restrained warrior culture of Japan and the baroque sensibilities of Renaissance Spain, dark and obsessed with ethnic cleansing. What one culture lives with absolute normality is experienced as exotic from the outsider’s eye. Everyone is seen as strange at first and then—with growing familiarity—is revealed as being more similar than originally perceived, but with the added value of enduring idiosyncrasies.
The story told in this novel is an essential and timeless one about the discoveries and conflicts that arise from the forging of relationships across borders, both geographical and cultural.
Star Rating - 3
The sheer idea behind this book is what drew me. I knew of diplomatic and trade missions from Europe to Japan, but Japan to Europe?? Nope. And to find out that these events truly happened, there really was a diplomatic mission from Japan that travel through New Spain in the New World to Spain proper and onto Rome to meet the Pope just blew my mind. It's little nuggets of obscure history like this that make me love the historical fiction genre so much.
For the most part, the author pulls things off well. He obviously knows his subject matter and locations well; the book shines in these areas. Yet, there are times where the author falls behind in his characters and book pacing.
I'm not sure if the author has physically been to the Iberian Peninsula, Japan, or Central America, but his writings surely read like he has. His depth of knowledge when it comes to cultures from those areas and physical landscapes defies expectations. He conveys these images in his readers’ heads in such a way that we experience the setting rather than just reading it. He has a gift for description and cultural understanding that stands out above your standard fictional writer.
The real meat of the story was examination of cultural interactions between two such a divergent societies, through the eyes of a Japanese samurai new to Spanish shores and various Spanish individuals. The author’s cultural knowledge, understanding, and respect come through excellently as he tells the story. As Shiro grows on his journey, the reader can't help but be drawn into his story, going from staunch samurai warrior who decried interaction with outsiders to a confidante of Spanish nobles and royalty and a prized member of that society.
Our main lead of Shrio is a great example of a vibrant, intriguing lead. Yet at times, there are too many characters being explored, some having no bearing on the story at all beyond being a famous name to throw in there for extra punch. This is especially evident in the beginning of the story where we have Cervantes introduced as a character for one scene in a bar just to give exposition; then we don't see him again until the very end where he dies. I mean, did we really need him to add anything to the story besides his name??
In the beginning, we also have way too many people introduced in a very short timeframe. I'd say for about the first three or four chapters, I was lost in a deluge of names and places. That's why I had such a hard time starting this work and getting into it. Thankfully, once things got flowing as the Japanese expedition had finally left their stores, I got into the flow enough to tell characters apart and could follow the action. Yet, even throughout the rest of the work, there would be times I’d lose track of people as the story progressed.
There were also some issues with the pacing of our story. Like I mentioned with the characters in the beginning, the novel starts with a bang and rush as we hit the ground running. Exploring the beginning of the Japanese delegation and Spanish shores readying to receive them, the reader is sucked into a maelstrom of movement and political maneuvering. Then we come to a slow section exploring either characters or just slow sequences, like sailing on the ship or exploring Spain. While having different paces in the story is a good thing, and in this particular one they were nicely done as well. It's the transitions from one pace to the other that jarred me, personally.
This work seems to be lesser-known given the small amount of reviews and comments I've noticed across the Internet. For all that, I felt it was an admirable attempt. The sheer idea is enough to give the author props. I enjoyed exploring this obscure corner of the historical record, through the eyes of a character that is both vibrant and well rounded. While there are hiccups along the way, this novel still comes over as enjoyable. Not the best out there, it certainly isn't the worst. I'd still recommend it, even if only for the extremely unique story it holds and how well the author handles the various cultures.
Note: Book received for free via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.