Japan, 1868: the last shogun has been defeated, the age of the emperors is about to begin – and in Japan’s frozen north a diehard band of loyalists plans a desperate last stand. Hana is just seventeen when her husband goes to war, leaving her alone and very vulnerable.
The Courtesan and the Samurai is the third book in The Shogun Quartet Series but it is much weaker than the previous books which leaves me wondering how much more Downer can get out of this era. Our main protagonists are Hana, the wife of a samurai, and Yozo, a young sailor who is still loyal to the north. The first half of the book recounts Hana’s journey towards becoming a courtesan and Yozo’s life as a sailor with the remnants of the northern navy. The two don’t actually meet until more than half way through the book which makes it harder to believe in their love story as it has so little time to develop.
When we first meet Hana, she is married to a nameless samurai who is much older than her and there are hints he has been less than kind. As her husband leaves to join the northern forces, Hana is left behind with her in-laws who are eventually ordered home to Kano and Hana is forced to flee her home when the southern soldiers arrive. A despairing Hana soon finds herself alone in the Yoshiwara district where she is tricked into being sold to a brothel who are looking for a new star courtesan. Although Hana is really too old for training, her great beauty and her natural poise soon make her a favourite. Before making her debut, Hana carefully cultivates her clients to instigate a bidding war to “deflower” her and her fame soon spreads.
While it seems strange Hana would so readily accept the life of a courtesan after her initial attempts to run away, we are told she always fantasised about what it would be like to live in the Yoshiwara and to be revered by so many for her beauty. Having had a less than satisfying sex life with her husband whose only goal was to get her pregnant, Hana’s awakened sensuality creates an enticing allure which makes her highly sought after. Although the brothel is able to charge high prices for Hana’s services, her debts will never be fully paid and her only means of escape is to entice someone to buy her contract so she can become his concubine. However, Hana gets more than she bargained for when her contract is sold to a wealthy man just as she’s fallen in love with Yozo.
Yozo is a young sailor who is part of the northern forces yet to surrender to the imperial army who have overthrown the shogun and captured Edo. The naval commanders are intent on repelling the southern invaders, however they are vastly outnumbered. As Yozo takes part in numerous battles, we learn he was one of fifteen young men who volunteered to go to the West when the travel embargo was lifted. Yozo and his companions adopted Western hairstyles and clothes while visiting many European countries to learn about the West. Since Yozo’s particular interest was in ships, he spent time in the Netherlands learning how the ships were built and how to sail one so it’s not surprising he joins the navy when he returns home.
While Yozo is a purely fictional character, the fifteen volunteers who went to the West is inspired from a true story but, unfortunately, Yozo’s chapters full of endless ship talk and battles are nowhere near as enticing as they could have been. The most interesting part of Yozo’s story are the accounts of his European tour, including visits to brothels, so it seems a shame this wasn’t the focus of the book. Although Yozo was born into the samurai class, he is so far removed from that world by his Western adventures, the title of the book seems a little misleading.
When Yozo and Hana finally meet through mutual acquaintances it’s love at first sight, and Hana manages to get Yozo a job as a translator in the brothel so it will attract more Western clientele. We are told Hana and Yozo have clandestine meetings which are never sexual in nature but most seem to happen off the page which doesn’t allow the romance to grow. Just as Hana seems to have found true love, fate intervenes when she learns her contract has been sold to the wealthiest man in the area who is also odious. Dismayed at the prospect of being parted, Yozo steals Hana away but there is one final twist in store for them.
The best parts of Downer’s books are always her descriptions about a specific time in Japanese history and the Yoshiwara region is a fascinating place to set a novel but it merely scratches the surface of the whole enslavement aspect. The rest of the story falls rather flat and I was largely uninterested in Hana and Yozo’s fate.