REVIEW: The Samurai’s Garden by Patricia Kiyono
Hiro Tanaka prepared for a life as a samurai warrior. But his world changed when Japan’s feudal system was abolished by the Emperor. Now, he must find a new vocation. Disillusioned with fighting and violence, he travels alone, going north to the island of Hokkaido. Many other samurai wander through the country and are known as ronin. Some have forsaken their honorable way to prey on the less fortunate.
Hanako Shimizu experienced first-hand the devastation caused by these disreputable wanderers. The previous winter, they raided her farm and killed her husband. Now, she needs to rebuild but has no money and no prospects — except for the dubious intentions of the town merchant.
When Hiro, tired of his wandering, encounters Hanako in the market, arguing with the merchant, he poses as her late husband’s cousin then offers to help her on the farm in exchange for a place to stay. Working on the land, Hiro finally finds the peace he has been seeking. But the reappearance of the rogue ronin, led by an unscrupulous leader from Hiro’s past, forces him to take up his swords again. But now, the stakes are higher.
This time, he’s fighting from the heart.
Dear Ms. Kiyono,
When I read the blurb for this book at Amazon, it immediately reminded me just a bit of a movie I’d watched a few years ago called “The Hidden Blade.” In both, Samurai must face the end of the Japanese feudal system in the 3rd quarter of the 19th century and for both, love appears where they don’t expect it.
There are several themes running through the story: class differences, gender differences, social upheaval of Japan in late 19th century. These are characters who were raised to expect to live by certain codes of behavior and social conventions who suddenly find themselves adrift. Will they be able to bridge gaps which were once unthinkable and find a future neither could have envisioned?
Hiro the hero is very, very nice. He’s deadly with samurai weapons, trained well by his father and has fought in bloody battles then watched a friend, forced by an unscrupulous daimyo, take his own life. He’s looking for peace and a new way to live. He’s also totally in awe of this lower class farmer female and all the hard work she does and how much she can teach him about this life and enjoying the fruits of your hard labor. Hiro is honorable, determined, dedicated and soon thinking of combining his efforts with Hanako’s but this time in marriage. Hiro is the kind of man your mother dreams you might one day end up with. The man is the embodiment of (the best of) the bushido code and handsome too.
Hanako is initially skeptical of him due to her previous run-in with ronin who murdered her husband and burned her crops. In the beginning the book almost has a tinge of the Old West with the hero riding – or in this case walking – to the aid of the oppressed widow just trying to bring the crops in. For Hanako, allowing this man into her life takes courage. She’s been living on her own, valiantly trying to keep the home place going in the face of a drunkard father and wastrel husband even before death and destruction arrive with a band of ronin. She’s amazed that Hiro wants to do manual labor, listens to what she says and not only refuses payment for his work but he also buys her some replacement farm stock as partial reparations for what his erstwhile fellow samurai cost her. The guy’s a saint, I’m telling you.
Meanwhile, the evil villain schemes to bring back the Good Old Days of samurai social dominance. His character begins with not much more to him than samurai privilege and arrogance. Unfortunately, this is pretty much the way he and his drunken band of rogue warriors stay throughout the book. This group showcases Those Gone Wrong and puts a bit of a face to the ronin terrorizing the Japanese civilians at the time but there isn’t much depth to his character.
Instead what made the book interesting and kept me reading is learning more about Japanese rural society, the themes I mentioned earlier on and the gentle love story between Hiro and Hanako. They’re just so perfect and sweet together even though it takes Hanako a long time to finally believe that Hiro isn’t going to get bored or decide to move on and leave her. The whole village is practically looking at her in disbelief that she waits so long to say “yes.”
I also enjoyed watching Hanako become friends with a widowed neighbor who had known Hanako’s mother and who takes the young woman under her wing as the daughter she never had. There is a quiet romance for Reiko as well.
The reviews which state that the storyline is fairly easy to predict for those who’ve read a lot of romance is true but the background of the characters and the unusual time and setting are worth the effort. B-