Japan, 1853. Growing up among the samurai of the Satsuma clan, in Japan’s deep south, the fiery, beautiful and headstrong Okatsu has been encouraged to be bold, taught to wield the halberd and to ride a horse. But when she is just seventeen, four black ships appear. Bristling with cannon and manned by strangers who to the Japanese eyes are barbarians, their appearance threatens Japan’s very existence, turning Okatsu’s world upside down.
Chosen by her feudal lord, she has been given a very special role to play. Given a new name – Princess Atsu – and a new destiny, she is the only one who can save the realm. Her journey to takes her to Edo Palace, a place so secret it cannot be marked on any map. There she seems doomed to live out her days – sequestered in the Women’s Palace, home to three thousand women and where only one man, the shogun, may enter. But beneath the palace’s immaculate facade, there are whispers of murders and ghosts. It is here that Atsu must complete her mission and discover one last secret: the secret of the man whose fate is irrevocably linked to hers…the shogun himself.
Guest Post – Lesley Downer
The Shogun’s Queen is a love story set in a world in which there was no word for ‘love’. I was amazed when I discovered that this was the case in Japan all the way up to the mid-nineteenth century, when my story is set. There was a word for ‘desire’, a word for ‘lust’. But there was no word for that madness that sweeps you off your feet when you’re least expecting it, that inspired knights in armour to take a lady’s glove into battle and drove gentlemen to drop to one knee and beg a lady to marry them, that sent couples rushing off to Gretna Green in defiance of their parents’ wishes.
It was not that Japanese didn’t fall head over heels in love. But to the government of the day love was so dangerous, so likely to threaten the order of society, that they banned it, made it illegal or at the very least contained it.
When people did fall in love they knew they were committing a crime or at the very least making a terrible mistake. It could only end badly. And that made it all the more fatally attractive. Love was the forbidden fruit.
Falling in love wasn’t something you expected and wanted to happen. No one looked for Mr or Miss Right, no one expected to meet the perfect person and settle down and marry.
Love and marriage didn’t go together like a horse and carriage. Love was to be feared. It was not a welcome, joyous thing but a dreadful curse.
Young people expected their parents to arrange a marriage for them and trusted them to find a suitable husband or wife. Usually you were allowed to say ‘No’. No one was twisting your arm unless you were of such high rank that you were married off in a political marriage.
And people didn’t expect to love their husband or wife. Love was not something a man felt for his wife. It would have been disrespectful. Respectable married women didn’t ‘tart themselves up’. That was for geishas and courtesans.
Women didn’t hope for happiness but tranquillity. They assumed they would have children and devote themselves to them. That was the purpose of marriage. Life was about doing your duty, about giving, not getting, doing what was required of you, not rocking the boat. It wasn’t about happiness, let alone love.
When people did fall in love, it came as a shock. You wouldn’t know what had happened, what was happening to you. And that made it all the more thrilling, that it was a forbidden experience. Even someone who’d always been well-behaved and obedient might be tempted to reject everything and follow her heart instead of doing what she was supposed to do in a society where everyone followed the rules.
If you did fall in love you knew you would not be able to spend your lives together. You’d both be married off to other people. You would have to keep your love secret and spend your life silently yearning, maybe managing a secret meeting every now and then. Some people chose to commit suicide together so they could be together in death. It was called ‘love suicide’ and to the Japanese of those days it was an extraordinarily romantic thing to do.
The Shogun’s Queen is about a woman who defies convention. She falls in love. And that brought her face to face with the dilemma that underlay all of Japanese society at that time. There was a terrible choice to be made. Should she do what she knew was right? Or should she follow her heart, abandon her family and duty and run away with this man she had fallen so passionately in love with?
For her the stakes were higher still. The fate of Japan itself was in her hands. And that’s the dilemma at the heart of The Shogun’s Queen.
Lesley Downer’s mother was Chinese and her father a professor of Chinese, so she grew up in a house full of books on Asia. But it was Japan, not China, that proved the more alluring and Lesley lived there for some fifteen years. She lives in London with her husband, the author Arthur I. Miller, and travels to Japan yearly.
She has written many books about Japan and its culture, including Geisha: The Secret History of the Vanishing World and the gripping Shogun Quartet; The Last Concubine, The Courtesan and the Samurai and The Samurai’s Daughter. The Shogun’s Queen is the first book in the series.
Many thanks to Lesley for her wonderful guest post, and thanks for checking out my stop on The Shogun’s Queen blog tour. Be sure to check out the other stops below, and pop back for a review of the book, coming soon!