Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Samurai Poet by Travis Belrose (Book Review)

The Samurai Poet blends fiction with history in a richly conceived novel about Ishikawa Jozan, a man who turns away from the samurai to a contemplative life of poetry and calligraphy. Narrated by Jozan, the world of medieval Japan comes alive as Jozan initially learns and embraces the way of the samurai, only to repudiate the warrior path for a pursuit of artistic and spritual purity.

As a reader who opened the novel knowing very little about medieval Japan, I learned quite a bit from the book, and came away with a sense of some of the famous historical figures of the period (like Tokugawa Ieyasu, a prominent Shogun) and historical sites that still stand to this day, including Shisendo Temple in Kyoto.

At its best, the book drew me in and let me see historical Japan through Jozan's eyes. This is nowhere more evident than in an early scene when a young Jozan watches as his father duels an arrogant schoolteacher. The detail is picture-perfect and finely rendered.

The novel felt episodic, and while I'm told that's not uncommon in Japanese fiction, for me the story felt unbalanced at times, with a faster-paced, more action-oriented beginning giving way to a slower, contemplative middle and end. There's no doubt Jozan was a yin-yang figure, and I understand that the book is structured to mirror the warrior-artist split, but I don't know if the final pairing worked all the way.

I also would have liked to see more female characters. There were some, including the narrator's mother, but I felt the book was missing that one strong female figure to fill out Jozan's life and the novel.

Overall, the book was interesting and rewarding, especially for a reader like me, who rarely reads historical fiction.

Full Disclosure: I am a friend of the author, and I've been privileged to read the book through several stages and drafts. I regret that Travis has not had any luck to date finding a publisher, but I want to implore him publicly to keep writing. You have, talent, Travis. Keep writing, and -- excelsior.

Links to Additional Information: You can learn more about Travis Belrose and The Samurai Poet by visiting the author's website and blog.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Frank. Three years have passed since you wrote this review of an earlier draft of The Samurai Poet. I'm pleased to report that the novel is scheduled for release as an ebook a few days from now. While I never added another female character in a starring role to address your critique, perhaps the review influenced me when I rewrote a chapter that included a strong woman who represents one of Jozan's missed connections. Thanks again for the review and the feedback that helped me work toward an improved final version.