The years leading up to the end of the Edo period, in which foreign invaders piled pressure upon pressure on Japan until the country was forced to open its doors to the world again, is a particularly interesting period in the country’s history. Generally, this tumultuous period in the country’s history is often told from the point of view of the shogunate, the lords or the invading American forces. But what about the Japan’s women, specifically the secretive women’s palace in the capital Edo?
The Shogun’s Queen, by Lesley Downer, is one of the most well-researched pieces of Japan historical fiction I’ve read in a long time. It follows the story of Okatsu, the daughter of a low-ranking lord in the Satsuma clan, who is adopted by her powerful uncle Lord Nariakira and rapidly makes her way through the social ranks and enters into one of the most powerful and mysterious places in Japan – the women’s palace in Edo Castle.
The Shogun’s Queen is set in the late Tokugawa period in the 1850’s, in which the British and American forces are circling an isolated Japan and making their presence felt and the Lords are arguing about whether to accept or repel them, despite their disadvantages in strength. The most powerful figure of all, the Shogun Iesada Tokugawa, is a weak and sickly man and there are some who would wish to see him replaced with a most imposing figure to deal with the barbarians.
This tumultuous period in Japan’s history sets the scene for what is a clearly well-researched novel that brings its characters vividly to life. Of course, The Shogun’s Queen is fiction so there is a fair degree of embellishment in terms of characters’ behaviour, actions and romances , as you would expect in historical romance stories. Nonetheless, the characters are very fleshed-out. Okatsu is a headstrong young woman in a man’s world who soon accepts the need for self-sacrifice for ‘the greater good’; Lord Nariakira is both a doting adoptive father and calculating tactician, caught between his love for Okatsu and need to use her as a political tool, and Iesada is theoretically the most powerful man in the country but deeply disturbed. There is a whole host of other characters and it is easy to lose track, so helpfully there is a list at the beginning of the book to refer to.
The story’s main setting is the mysterious women’s palace. The Shogun is the only man who may enter and it is here where the ladies exert their influence, often more effectively than any man. Once Okatsu is sent there, she cannot leave this hive of scheming and spying. For all its beauty, it is a prison. The second half of the novel certainly feels claustrophobic, as Okatsu is forced to guess at the chaos that is unfolding outside the palace walls.
The Shogun’s Queen is an essential read for Japanese history fans and historical romance readers. It’s gripping, enchanting and very well-researched. Once you’ve finished, you’ll likely want to read more like it, so you’ll be glad to know Lesley Downer has written a few other Japanese historical fictions. I’ve already added them to my ‘to read’ list!