Eleven year old Sachi is excited when she learns an imperial princess will be travelling through her village, however she is even more shocked when she is told she will be accompanying Princess Kazu to Edo Castle.
Kazu’s subsequent marriage to Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi was arranged to end the rivalry between the imperial court and the shogunate, however Kazu fails to conceive an heir and she gifts Sachi to her husband. After four years of learning how to be a court lady, Sachi is surprised to discover the princess had been grooming her all along to become the shogun’s concubine but her time with him is short. A few months later, news of the shogun’s untimely death sends shockwaves throughout Edo and Sachi is forced to flee in the ensuing turmoil.
As civil war erupts between the shogun’s forces in the north and the imperial army to the south, Sachi must impersonate Kazu so the princess can get to safety but her ruse is eventually discovered as she travels across the mountains. Sachi is rescued by Shinzaemon, a handsome young ronin, who is steadfastly loyal to the shogunate. As a former concubine, Sachi is in grave danger from the southerners who are searching for her and she eventually makes her way to her childhood village where she learns the truth about her own parentage. Having been adopted as child, Sachi always knew she was different with her pale skin and green eyes, but she is astounded to learn her mother was a lady of the court who was punished for having an affair with a man of lower rank.
Learning her father is now working with the imperial court, she decides to return to Edo to find him but she is dismayed when Shinzaemon decides to fight in the last major battle which will end the feudal shogunate forever and bring the country under imperial rule.
The Last Concubine is the second book in The Shogun’s Quartet series, however it was actually the first book written. While The Shogun’s Queen felt like more of an introduction to the time period, The Last Concubine is a far more sweeping tale which takes us outside the confines of the palace. The storylines are initially similar since Sachi is a peasant girl plucked from her village to be transformed into a lady much like Atsu in the first book. While Atsu was being groomed as a future queen, young Sachi is being groomed as a concubine even though she is unaware of it. Sachi’s future at Edo Castle proves to be just as tragic as Atsu’s since she only spends one night with the shogun before his death and she is forced to take holy orders at the age of seventeen.
Although Sachi is not a real life character, Princess Kazu was and she really did present her husband with a concubine she had handpicked herself. Kazu is a rather indistinct figure in the book but we get to meet Atsu again, now Lady Tensho-in, but she seems to have had a personality transplant as she is nothing like the woman we met before and is rather cruel to Sachi. Lady Tensho-in has fulfilled her promise to her husband to raise Iemochi but his early death leaves them all with a dilemma as he had no heir. Rumours abound Iemochi was poisoned by his rival Yoshinobu who takes over the shogunate, however he turns out to be a completely different character too. The Shogun’s Queen paints Yoshinobu as the only man who can save Japan from the barbarians and the entire book is based on Atsu’s attempts to convince her husband to name Yoshinobu as his heir. As shogun, Yoshinobu proves to be an ineffectual ruler and his attempts to save the shogunate fail.
Not being an expert on Japanese history, I will admit to being somewhat confused by the differences between the shogun and the emperor. The Shogun’s Queen muddied the waters somewhat when it was revealed the Westerners were prone to referring to the shogun as the emperor and that led me to believe they were one and the same person. In The Last Concubine, we learn the shogun and the emperor are two distinct people, with the shogun being a ruler and the emperor a divine being who communes with the gods. The reasons behind the civil war which eventually erupts still isn’t all that clear to me other than it resulting in Japan falling under imperial rule so I found that a little frustrating. I don’t think the author took enough time explaining what was going on, however this may have been deliberate since Sachi herself doesn’t really understand and she is the sole narrator.
The book is fairly chunky in length, however the pace drags alarmingly between the time the civil war ends and Sachi begins her quest to find her mother. Sachi’s daily routines start to become a little repetitive and there’s a little too much attention given to her friendship with Edward who is the first Westerner she’s ever met. The barbarians are often dismissed as ugly due to their hairiness and prominent noses, not to mention the smell they emit from being meat eaters, however it is refreshing that Sachi eventually begins to see past the strangeness and realises the Westerners are not so different.
The real heart of these novels will always be the world that Downer brings so vividly to life with her detailed descriptions and impeccable research. While we are invited to once again walk through the luxurious rooms of Edo Castle where women like Sachi are trapped like colourful butterflies, we are also given the chance to experience the poverty of the villagers and mountain people Sachi meets on her journey. Sachi feels like she no longer belongs to either life which is fitting since powerful changes are sweeping over Japan and many are left feeling displaced.