Raised in the Satsuma region of Japan, seventeen-year-old Okatsu expects to marry and have children like any other village girl, however her life takes an unexpected turn when Lord Nariakira announces his plans to adopt her as his daughter. As Princess Atsu, Okatsu spends the next three years learning the accomplishments a young woman of her rank needs to make a good marriage, however she is still shocked when Lord Nariakira informs her she will be marrying Iesada, the thirteenth Tokugawa Shogun.
Atsu’s adoption and subsequent education have all been designed to elevate her ranking high enough to make the marriage possible so she can persuade Iesada to name Lord Nariakira’s favoured candidate as his heir. With the British and the Americans threatening dire consequences if Japan does make trade deals with them, the country is in dire need of a strong leader to ensure the negotiations are favourable to Japan. When Atsu arrives at Edo Castle, she is shocked when she meets Iesada for the fragile young man is clearly under the thumb of his domineering mother and his childlike behaviour makes it doubtful they will ever have a normal marriage. To achieve her goals, Atsu will have to gain Iesada’s trust to prise him away from his mother’s influence but she doesn’t bargain on falling in love with his sweet nature.
The Shogun’s Queen is the first book in The Shogun’s Quartet series, although it appears to have been written after the other three books, and it focuses on the life of the real Princess Atsu who was born on 5 February 1836 in Kagoshima. As stated in the novel, Atsu was adopted by Lord Nariakira with the specific aim of helping him achieve his political aim of having Lord Yoshinobu named as the next heir to the shogunate as he is considered the strongest candidate to deal with the encroaching Westerners. Atsu doesn’t learn the truth behind her adoption until the marriage with Iesada has been negotiated but she is aware something is being hidden from her and is further dismayed when Lord Nariakira begs her forgiveness.
Atsu is an intelligent young woman with a strong character which stands her in good stead when she arrives at Edo Castle as the court is seething with political intrigue and dangerous rivalries. Atsu’s worst fears are confirmed when she meets Iesada for the first time and realises there is something wrong with him mentally. Despite being over thirty, Iesada is childlike and completely dependent on his mother who holds the real power at court so achieving Lord Nariakira’s goal isn’t going to be easy. As Atsu slowly gains Iesada’s trust she begins to realise much of his unruly behaviour is attributable to his mother who insists on treating him like a child to keep him under her thumb. Atsu encourages Iesada to think for himself and their relationship becomes physical but Atsu is disappointed when she fails to conceive.
The relationship between the couple is really sweet and I loved watching Iesada blossom under Atsu’s influence but you do get a sense of her frustration when her mother-in-law and his favourite concubine undo all her hard work. The story does get somewhat repetitive during this part as Atsu has to keep regrouping but I suppose our frustration is a reflection of her struggle. As well as trying to do what is best for Iesada, Atsu is also torn by her loyalty to Lord Nariakira who has spies at court watching her every move and they don’t hesitate to remind her how much she owes him.
Although not much is known about Atsu’s real life, Downer does an excellent job of embellishing her story and bringing her to life along with all the other colourful characters who lead very cloistered lives in the Women’s Palace. Of course, the sheltered nature of their lives is a mirror for what is happening to their country as Japan’s insular way of life is about to change now that the Westerners have arrived. The British and the Americans behave appallingly when it comes to bullying the Japanese into making trade deals with them so you can certainly understand the resentment. The arrival of the Westerners sends shockwaves throughout Japan as they realise how inadequate their defences are in comparison, yet there is a lovely childlike wonder at the technology being introduced into the country. It’s also a bit of a sly wink towards how innovative Japan will eventually become in regard to advances in technology.
While I had issues with the repetitiveness of the story at certain points and felt the dialogue was stilted on occasion, I could find no fault with Downer’s historical acumen as she re-creates nineteenth century Japan amazingly well. Most attention is naturally one the female characters of the story but the attention to detail in the way they dress and go about their daily lives is astonishing. I’m not really familiar with Japanese history enough to notice any inaccuracies but Downer’s love for the culture shines through and I know she has written many non-fiction books on Japan so I’m sure the research is sound.