Monday, February 22, 2016

Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune by Pamela S. Turner

cover of Samurai Rising by Pamela S. Turner
It's a cliché to say that a work of nonfiction reads like a novel, but... Well, Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune totally reads like a novel. A bloody, epic one at that, full of betrayal, bravery, backstabbing, honor, loyalty, war, and feuding families in soon-to-be feudal Japan.

The Taira clan had the emperor's favorunfairly and undeservedly, in the eyes of Minamoto Yoshitomo. After a Minamoto plot to kidnap the emperor went awry and Yoshitomo was murdered, it would not have been unexpected for Taira Kiyomori to kill Yoshitomo's surviving sons, as well. He decided to spare a few of Minamoto's sons, however, including the youngest, an infant boy named Yoshitsune.

So here's the story of an exiled child from a dishonored family who runs away from the monastery he was sent to, learns archery and swordfighting late in life (for a boy from a samurai family, anyway), reunites with his brothers to go to war against the Taira, displays courage and skill in battle and an unexpected military genius, has a kind of charisma that engenders loyalty among the men he commands, but is also proud and ambitious and maybe arrogant, meaning powerful men had powerful reasons to fear and/or hate him and seek his downfall. Seriously, is it any wonder that Yoshitsune became a legendary figure and the basis of several classic works of Japanese literature?

Pamela S. Turner's biography of Yoshitsune is a page-turning, very approachable book that vividly describes 12th-century Japan, while delineating what is known about Yoshitsune's life and what is speculation or fiction. Turner integrates a lot of information about Japanese life and culture at the time into the text, which helps readers understand the complex relationships (or rivalries) among the families, clans, and with the imperial family. She also writes rousing battle scenes. And if you're a fan of back matter, you'll have even more reason to love this bookpractically a third of the book consists of back matter, comprising an author's note, comprehensive chapter notes, a bibliography, and more.

A few minor quibbles: While the book features stunning illustrations from Gareth Hinds to open each chapter, I do wish that some photographs of swords, armor, or bows (such as can be viewed on Turner's website) were included in the book. Also, the five maps included help to situate the key sites and battles, but the main map at the start at the book is marred by an unfortunately located gutter that makes it a hard to see the area to the east of Kyoto where an early battle took place. But again, these are minor, design-focused criticisms.

Basically, if you're looking foror even if you're just open to readingnonfiction that's fast-paced yet comprehensively researched, I highly recommend this one.

Book details
Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune by Pamela S. Turner, illustrated by Gareth Hinds
YA Nonfiction (Biography/History)
Published 2016 by Charlesbridge (ISBN 97815808985842)

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