All readers know that good novels draw us into other worlds. I cannot think of another, however, which so alarmed me as this one, just as events alarmed and frightened its central character.
She is Okatsu, a young woman from the samurai Satsuma Clan in mid-19th-century Japan. The country has been ruled by the shogunate, a military caste, since the early 17th century; the emperors were remote figures until their restoration to power in 1868. China is already under attack and exploitation by Britain and the US, and many Japanese fear they may be next. Some urge driving the foreigners off, while others — realists — insist that treaties must be signed that yield some sovereignty to the westerners even while Japan is modernising.
Aged barely 20, Okatsu is chosen by scheming westernisers — and given a new name, Princess Atsu — to travel to Edo, later Tokyo, to entice the shogun (never seen except by his 3,000 court women and a few male courtiers) to fall for her and make her his consort. Ever so carefully, she must then persuade him to approve ties with the foreigners and appoint as his heir a western-oriented young samurai.
What Atsu experiences is a mounting passion for the fragile young shogun and increasing anxiety — Leslie Downer’s powers are at her greatest here — when she discovers that many babies have died in the palace; that even the shogun’s father was murdered, and that the shogun’s mother will do anything to keep control. Atsu also realises that what she was instructed to do in Edo was part of a deeper scheme.
This story, both fiction and fact, is wonderfully told by Downer, who knows a great deal about Japan, where she lived on and off for 15 years. There, she briefly entered the world of the geishas, whose traditional training was designed, and remains, to entertain men with their beauty, their entrancing arts and almost never their sexuality. Downer has written three earlier novels based on her profound knowledge of Japanese history and culture. The Shogun’s Queen is, strangely enough, the prequel to the three already published.
Downer creates characters in which we believe — and like or detest. Actual events and history are lightly presented. The sex — appropriately sensitively and rarely portrayed — is the only fictional sex I’ve ever read that would not qualify for the Bad Sex Award.