In Kuwahara’s debut, two rival clans fight for control of feudal Japan in a series of battles that ensnares multiple generations.
The samurai of the Taira family come to power in the 12th century after helping the emperor beat back a bloody uprising led by the Genji clan. But Taira ascendancy only inspires more violent disputes—barely three years after the first battle, the surviving members of the Genji family once more conspire to overthrow the ruling government. Though this effort fails, it sets in motion a decades-long conflict that slowly undermines the Taira family’s power and briefly leads to a divided country with two emperors, each propped up by one of the rival families. At her best, Kuwahara paints a surprisingly dark portrait of the samurai—they resort to sneak attacks at night, they steal from villagers to survive and they execute the families of their defeated foes in order to prevent future retaliation. For the most part, though, the novel reads like a dispassionate, disorganized history book. Countless characters come and go with little more detail than a name, while battle scenes stumble in clunky prose, stale dialogue and meandering digressions. A few memorable moments slice through the clamor of inconsequential skirmishes—a defeated soldier orders his own daughter killed before the enemy can destroy her, or the exiled samurai who vainly proclaims himself king of his empty island. Focusing on a few key battles and devoting more depth to character and plot development would not only have sharpened the narrative, but could have more clearly illustrated the full consequence of war, the perilous family business.
A wandering narrative causes this story to win a few battles, but not the war.