When you think of Japan, certain images come to mind, like cherry blossoms, geisha and samurai. The role of men in Japanese society has been explored in many stories, so when a novel focuses on women, there’s something new to explore. This is the case with The Shogun’s Queen, written by Lesley Downer. The book is set during the 1850s, when Japan was starting to get in touch with the rest of the world and the western nations were muscling in. The protagonist is a young Japanese woman called Okatsu, who’s sent to the women’s palace of Edo Castle to marry the shogun and convince him to save Japan and its culture.
The story begins with Okatsu delivering a message to one of the feudal lords of Japan. At fourteen, Okatsu is fiery and determined, committed to her task. The message is part of a bigger plot by the Prince of Satsuma, Lord Nariakira Shimazu to dethrone his tyrannical father. Lord Nariakira becomes a constant presence in Okatsu’s life, grooming her to become a princess and adopting her as his daughter.
Armed with a new name, Princess Atsu, Okatsu infiltrates the women’s palace in Edo Castle on behalf of Lord Nariakira. Her mission is to get close enough to the shogun to convince him to name an heir on behalf of Nariakira and move Japan into the modern age. Atsu realises that she was a pawn in a political game, but sets out to complete her mission. She navigates a dangerous atmosphere of intrigue and deceit. Atsu’s task is made more difficult by the fact her husband Iesada Tokugawa is sickly and under the control of his mother Lady Honju-in.
Atsu proves her worth by making the shogun fall in love with her and she comes to feel for him as well. Atsu’s bravery and strength is shown throughout the novel as she overcomes the challenges put in front of her. She’s a compelling protagonist, demonstrating the resolve of Japanese women.
A major theme of The Shogun’s Queen is western imperialism. During the events of the book, Americans arrive and the Japanese fear the ‘barbarians’ will take away their culture. Downer is keen to show the courage of the Japanese people and they fight to defend their history and heritage. The amount of detail and research that’s gone into the book is impressive. You’ll feel as if you’ve been transported to a far away land that’s filled with beauty.
The Shogun’s Queen is an emotional story about a woman faced with an impossible task. Despite everything that’s put in front of her, Atsu continues to fight and that’s a book worth reading. You can buy it on Amazon now.