Kirk presents 17th-century Japan as a world imbued with stately rituals, unshakable principles and a rigid moral code.
Munisai Shinmen has faced an implacable enemy and has emerged with both body and honor intact, so his training as a samurai has served him well. Shortly after the first battle Kirk depicts, we get a sense of how the culture of honor operates when Lord Kanno, the defeated enemy, plaintively asks how to commit seppuku, for he doesn’t know how it’s done and he wishes to die an honorable death—he’s 9 years old. Violence is not confined to the battlefield, however, for an enraged Munisai has also killed his wife and her lover. Munisai eventually goes back to reclaim his young son, Bennosuke, whom he left eight years before in the care of Munisai’s brother Dorinbo, a Shinto monk. Though injured, Munisai takes over his son’s training, and the youngster (he’s only 13) begins to realize his promise as a future samurai when he defeats Kihei Arima (aka “Lightning Hand”), who’s already killed six men in single combat and is eager to add a seventh. Issues of honor re-emerge when Munisai presents himself to his lord, Hideie Ukita, to commit seppuku for one of Bennosuke’s transgressions. Kirk instills the ritual with great dignity as Munisai commits the ultimate act to “expunge all shame.” Bennosuke then continues to confirm his stance as a celebrated samurai by participating in the battle of Sekigahara and claiming a “new” identity as Musashi Miyamoto, one of the most renowned swordsmen in samurai history.
While not having the epic scope of Shogun, Kirk’s novel is sure to be compared to Clavell’s work in its superb depiction of samurai culture.