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The Last Concubine

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How do you fall in love when your society has no word for it? "The Last Concubine" is an epic love story closely based on historical events, chronicling 19th century Japan's extraordinary change from a medieval to a modern country. This is the story of a shogun, a princess and the three thousand women of the women's palace - all of whom really existed - and of the civil wa How do you fall in love when your society has no word for it? "The Last Concubine" is an epic love story closely based on historical events, chronicling 19th century Japan's extraordinary change from a medieval to a modern country. This is the story of a shogun, a princess and the three thousand women of the women's palace - all of whom really existed - and of the civil war that brought their way of life to an end ...Japan, 1865: the women's palace in the great city of Edo is a sprawling complex much like a middle-eastern harem.Bristling with intrigue and erotic rivalries, the palace is home to three thousand women and only one man - the young shogun. Sachi, a beautiful fifteen-year-old girl, is chosen as his concubine. But Japan is changing. Black Ships have arrived from the West, bringing foreigners eager to add Japan to their colonial empires. As civil war erupts, Sachi flees for her life. Rescued by a rebel warrior, she finds unknown feelings stirring within her; but this is a world in which private passions have no place and there is not even a word for 'love'. Before she dare dream of a life with him, Sachi must unravel the mystery of her own origins - a mystery that encompasses a wrong so terrible that it threatens to destroy her ...From the timeless beauty of the Women's Palace in Edo to bloody battles fought outside its walls, "The Last Concubine" is an epic evocation of a country in revolution, and of a young woman's quest to find out who she really is. Hide


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How do you fall in love when your society has no word for it? "The Last Concubine" is an epic love story closely based on historical events, chronicling 19th century Japan's extraordinary change from a medieval to a modern country. This is the story of a shogun, a princess and the three thousand women of the women's palace - all of whom really existed - and of the civil wa How do you fall in love when your society has no word for it? "The Last Concubine" is an epic love story closely based on historical events, chronicling 19th century Japan's extraordinary change from a medieval to a modern country. This is the story of a shogun, a princess and the three thousand women of the women's palace - all of whom really existed - and of the civil war that brought their way of life to an end ...Japan, 1865: the women's palace in the great city of Edo is a sprawling complex much like a middle-eastern harem.Bristling with intrigue and erotic rivalries, the palace is home to three thousand women and only one man - the young shogun. Sachi, a beautiful fifteen-year-old girl, is chosen as his concubine. But Japan is changing. Black Ships have arrived from the West, bringing foreigners eager to add Japan to their colonial empires. As civil war erupts, Sachi flees for her life. Rescued by a rebel warrior, she finds unknown feelings stirring within her; but this is a world in which private passions have no place and there is not even a word for 'love'. Before she dare dream of a life with him, Sachi must unravel the mystery of her own origins - a mystery that encompasses a wrong so terrible that it threatens to destroy her ...From the timeless beauty of the Women's Palace in Edo to bloody battles fought outside its walls, "The Last Concubine" is an epic evocation of a country in revolution, and of a young woman's quest to find out who she really is. Hide

30 review for The Last Concubine

  1. 5 out of 5

    Kagama-the Literaturevixen

    I read many favourable reviews about this book,and many of them were gushing with praise for it. A Japanese “Gone with the wind” With a gorgeous cover. Can you imagine I was so eager to get this book in my hands? The plot boils down to this: Sachi is a peasant girl who is adopted by a princess.The princess is going to be the shoguns wife. Sachi grows up in the Edo castle and learns the strict protocol of the castle and using a halberd. The heroine becomes noticed by the shogun and becomes his con I read many favourable reviews about this book,and many of them were gushing with praise for it. A Japanese “Gone with the wind” With a gorgeous cover. Can you imagine I was so eager to get this book in my hands? The plot boils down to this: Sachi is a peasant girl who is adopted by a princess.The princess is going to be the shoguns wife. Sachi grows up in the Edo castle and learns the strict protocol of the castle and using a halberd. The heroine becomes noticed by the shogun and becomes his concubine. Cue one creepy sex scene (first time nevertheless..poor girl)and some bawdy jokes about "picking mushrooms" by some older women.And then we have the shogun unexpectedly dying,adding to the unrest of the land. War breaks out and Sachi and a handmaiden flees the castle,Sachi posing as the princess.They met up with some ronin samurai and decide to travel with them. After this I lost grip on the plot….except for the love story between Sachi and one of the samurai. What was his name again? And as for the editing.... First of all someone hand this author a book about synonyms! There is only so much repeating of words one can endure. For example someones hair is described as “bushy” throughout the whole book and everyone seems to have “plump” lips.And the plot structure is lacking,feeling sketchy and not that well thought out,the same can be said for the characters up to and including our maincharacter. Fascinating history yes but it reads more like a history book than a novel sometimes. And even if I found the love story touching sometimes..it didn’t have that extra oomph! Like in the real “Gone with the wind” Just about readable. If you are interested in the authors claim that there was no word for love in japanese culture up until the 19th Century. Here is her take on it. No sources though so I dont know... http://www.lesleydowner.com/2008/02/1...-

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jarka

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I was looking forward to reading this very much... well, maybe that´s because I was sooo disappointed. The story is just too unbelievable for me (compare it to the shock of the very first line of "acknowledgements" in Golden´s Memoirs of a Geisha!!!). How come the shogun chose her? I had the impression the things just happened without any explanation, motivation or background given. Well, maybe I would find out if I finished the bood, which I didn´t. Mostly, when I don´t like a book, I read it t I was looking forward to reading this very much... well, maybe that´s because I was sooo disappointed. The story is just too unbelievable for me (compare it to the shock of the very first line of "acknowledgements" in Golden´s Memoirs of a Geisha!!!). How come the shogun chose her? I had the impression the things just happened without any explanation, motivation or background given. Well, maybe I would find out if I finished the bood, which I didn´t. Mostly, when I don´t like a book, I read it to the end just for the education of it (reading in English) and to see what comes out, how the story ends. This time - I wasn´t interested even the slightest bit. Even the narrating style was not very catching for me. When I read the comparison of "pain like knife turning in her stomach/guts" for about the third or fifth time, I really had enough of it.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Caledonia

    While Japan is teetering on the edge of civil war, Sachi becomes concubine to the last shogun of Edo (Tokyo) but her life is soon to change when the old ways are swept away forever. Sachi flees from the castle where she has lived a pampered life and finds herself on the run with her trusted friend Taki. As traditional values break down, the roads are a treacherous place to be and Sachi soon finds herself in danger. She is rescued by a young ronin warrior with whom she soon falls in love but the While Japan is teetering on the edge of civil war, Sachi becomes concubine to the last shogun of Edo (Tokyo) but her life is soon to change when the old ways are swept away forever. Sachi flees from the castle where she has lived a pampered life and finds herself on the run with her trusted friend Taki. As traditional values break down, the roads are a treacherous place to be and Sachi soon finds herself in danger. She is rescued by a young ronin warrior with whom she soon falls in love but the future is unsettled for both of them. A fascinating and detailed look at a culture that no longer exists. It has certainly made me more curious about the history of feudal Japan.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    I was just browsing through the library scanning book titles when this caught my eye. At first I have to admit I judged it on it's cover and title but when I finished I realized that I had just randomly stumbled upon one of the best written books I have ever read. It so well describes the ways of Japan in that time period and I'm going to read it again.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Grace

    DNF. It's a sad day when you realize what could be an amazing epic of Japanese history has no character development or motivation. *sigh* I was really looking forward to reading about this time period in Japan, but I discovered that the reviews warning people away were correct. The prose is lovely but the story is dry because of the lack of development. On to the next one...

  6. 4 out of 5

    Daniela

    looks like i've come to enjoy narratives about remote locations and cultural beliefs and practices so divergent with the common pool of Euro-American resources

  7. 5 out of 5

    Gary

    A very engrossing novel. Set in 1860s Japan during the time of the Meiji Restoration and the years leading up to it. Sachi grows up in a mountain village rural Japan. Her pale skin and fine features have always set her apart and made her feel different. At the age of eleven, the procession of the Imperial Princess sweeps up her up from her home to the woman's palace at the Imperial capital of Edo, where she is before too long, chosen as the concubine of the young Shogun after he sees and her and A very engrossing novel. Set in 1860s Japan during the time of the Meiji Restoration and the years leading up to it. Sachi grows up in a mountain village rural Japan. Her pale skin and fine features have always set her apart and made her feel different. At the age of eleven, the procession of the Imperial Princess sweeps up her up from her home to the woman's palace at the Imperial capital of Edo, where she is before too long, chosen as the concubine of the young Shogun after he sees and her and is smitten Deadly female rivalries from people as diverse as Fuyu who was her contemporary when she joined the palace and the powerful mother of the Shogun, the retired one make for distress and danger. But after the death of the young Shogun from what is billed consumption but is certainly poisoning, civil war caused by rebellion by guerrillas from the south and the destruction of the palace at Edo force her to flee the palace, find love with a dashing Samurai, return for a short while to her native village, and discover her true parentage Many brushes with death at the hands of the southern rebels , bandits and other desperadoes , which she survives in part due to her own skill she develops as a Samurai and a close company of heroes including her close friend the loyal and aristocratic born Taki. The sights , sounds, feeling and smells of the Japan of the time are brought to life from the cherry blossoms of the palace gardens to the stinking rank breath of a degenerate old bandit that tries to rape her unaware of her skill with a knife. The author uses her knowledge of the Japan of the time to create a romance and adventure, and her love and understanding of Japan shines throughout. I love books with strong and beautiful female leads and really could get under the skin of Sachi and root for her. Highly recommended especially if you like books like Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, A must for all Japanophiles

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jose

    Was disappointed with this book. The main problem was the blurb on the back - it gives you the entire tale bar the last chapter or so (and even that wasn't too hard to guess). The implication of the blurb is that girl meets boy fairly quickly and once you realise that's not the case it's very hard to continue. It takes the entire book for the main character to meet her 'true' love, by which time she's been painted as a sap without much of a backbone. If it hadn't been for my love of all things J Was disappointed with this book. The main problem was the blurb on the back - it gives you the entire tale bar the last chapter or so (and even that wasn't too hard to guess). The implication of the blurb is that girl meets boy fairly quickly and once you realise that's not the case it's very hard to continue. It takes the entire book for the main character to meet her 'true' love, by which time she's been painted as a sap without much of a backbone. If it hadn't been for my love of all things Japanese then I would have stopped reading. Was a fairly big struggle to finish as it was! The characters were ok, the descriptions and explanations of Japanese culture at the time better, but overall it's a flop for me. Didn't grasp me and took far too long for the two main characters to meet and fall in love, by which point the author must have realised there was a deadline and rounded everything up quickly. Could have been so much more.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Elisabeth

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I wanted to like this book so bad but in the end it was only "OK". Sachi lacked depth, as well as many of the other characters and I never really cared about them. Downer shows that she has studied the history of Japan thoroughly and the history is good but the fiction story is not. The whole thing about Sachi being a concubine's bastard child wasn't necessary and neither was Edwards who was portraited as being the greatest man of all (at least in my opinion). Sachi was a little to quick to like I wanted to like this book so bad but in the end it was only "OK". Sachi lacked depth, as well as many of the other characters and I never really cared about them. Downer shows that she has studied the history of Japan thoroughly and the history is good but the fiction story is not. The whole thing about Sachi being a concubine's bastard child wasn't necessary and neither was Edwards who was portraited as being the greatest man of all (at least in my opinion). Sachi was a little to quick to like everything that happened. On the + side: The history. I want to read more about Japan :-) On the - side: lack of depth

  10. 4 out of 5

    Emmy Den breeijen

    The part that deals with the woman's palace is interesting but the author constantly uses the same descriptions etc for characters almost every time throughout the book. This gets tedious (and frankly laughable) after a while. Not too bad as a story though

  11. 5 out of 5

    Natasa

    A lovely story, if not too long, but full of interesting facts about life in Japan in the late 1800s. My biggest criticism is that it is not written in a style befitting this period in history. 

  12. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    I was sucked into this book from beginning to end. So well written, educational and heartfelt

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jodie "Bookish" Cook

    Book Review Title: The Last Concubine Author: Lesley Downer Genre: Historical/Cultural/Romance/War Rating: ***** Review: After finishing The Last Concubine I came across a (spoiler-filled) video in which Lesley Downer, the author, likens her novel to “a Gone With The Wind set in Japan”. The parallel is awkward, not to say unfortunate. Beyond the surface similarities – a 19th-century civil war, destruction of a way of life, and a heroine-centric narrative – any real comparison is disadvantageous for T Book Review Title: The Last Concubine Author: Lesley Downer Genre: Historical/Cultural/Romance/War Rating: ***** Review: After finishing The Last Concubine I came across a (spoiler-filled) video in which Lesley Downer, the author, likens her novel to “a Gone With The Wind set in Japan”. The parallel is awkward, not to say unfortunate. Beyond the surface similarities – a 19th-century civil war, destruction of a way of life, and a heroine-centric narrative – any real comparison is disadvantageous for The Last Concubine. Gone With The Wind is epic – big and complex and ambitious, a Pulitzer-prize-winning, love/hate classic, all things The Last Concubine, with its thin plot, skimpy characterisations, and tentatively developed themes is definitely not. The unflattering contrast draws away attention from the latter’s unique appeal for lovers of romantic historical fiction: a rare, carefully researched historical setting, likeable characters including a halberd-wielding samurai heroine, and a love story with a HEA. And while Downer’s historical non-fiction roots show, frequently overwhelming story in this, her 2008 fiction debut, she also won me over by compellingly bringing to life the spirit of a bygone era. 1861-1872. Picked up from a village* on impulse by Princess Kazu whose bridal entourage is passing through the Kiso valley, eleven-year old Sachi, the adopted daughter of rural samurai, enters service in the women’s Inner Palace of the vast Edo Castle, the residence of the Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi, ruler of Japan. At the age of fifteen, Sachi is offered as candidate to be the one and only concubine to the Shogun by the Princess, his childless consort. Her beauty and free spirit earn Sachi the young Shogun’s favour in spite of a rival faction, led by Retired Lady Tensho’in, who despise her as a peasant upstart. When Sachi is moved into her own apartments as the Shogun’s second wife – the honourable lady of the side chamber – she seems destined for a brilliant future. But outside the many tall, thick walls of the strictly secluded palace there is rumble of war. Distant at first, the uprising by southern rebels seems too insignificant to have any effect on the centuries-old traditions and rarefied atmosphere of the Inner Palace. Then catastrophe strikes. Soon, Sachi is given a mission that sends her straight into danger – and the discovery of something wildly joyful for which her culture knows no word. Foreigners may call the concept love, but Sachi realises her forbidden passion for a ronin can only lead to the ruination of them both. Yet winds of change are shaking Japan to its foundations. Amid the destruction, secrets are blown open. Are they a warning – or a reason to hope? Nineteenth-century Japanese society is unknown territory for me but Downer’s apparent familiarity with the era is so comfortable and comforting that I was never left to observe customs and attitudes with a distancing sense of foreignness. The Last Concubine managed to pull me into a culture very different from mine with an ease that made even the strange (to me) feel natural and understandable. That is a great gift to a reader like me who enjoys exploring differences and samenesses in cultures and values through the medium of fiction. The Japan stereotyped in Europe and America can be found in the novel, too: the one of poetic delicacy (plum blossom petals and autumnal maple leaves) contrasted with blood-dripping feudal cruelty. But Downer does guide readers beyond the wall of exotic imagery and gently familiarises them with the daily realities of both the haves and have-nots during the later Edo period. For example, we meet rural samurai whose lives revolve around practical and administrative chores unrelated to fighting, such as inn-keeping; delicately scented and exquisitely dressed palace ladies whom decorum requires to be sealed off from contact with commoners but who are trained in lethal battle techniques in order to be able to protect the shogun; we see the rigidly ritualised religious and administrative formalities, all performed by attending female functionaries, surrounding every moment, both public and private, of the shogun’s dealings with his wife, concubine, and any other lady; and we experience the honoured and important role adoption plays among both high and low. Obviously I cannot judge the degree of historical accuracy although the wealth of often minute detail suggests dedicated research. According to Lesley Downer’s website she has spent fifteen years in and out of Japan and wrote several non-fiction books with Japanese subjects before this novel. In The Last Concubine’s interesting Afterword (in which it is noted that any translations from Japanese are Downer’s own) she outlines some of her research, discussing for example how she strove to create authenticity by trying to get the thoughts and feelings of her Japanese characters right. She indicates that she used her imagination where documentation left gaps, as is the case with certain details of life in the women’s palace in Edo (whose inhabitants were sworn to secrecy). Because the events in the book are seen from the point of view of politically partisan characters and the story does not always present evidence to back up their claims, it is sometimes unclear whether what the reader is told about the war is reliable. This nagged at me especially in the matter of the history of the power struggle between the Emperor and the Shogun. Since I was travelling without my laptop at the time I had to wait to fact check, and when I finally did it increased my discontent with how the subject is handled in the novel. Worth mentioning is that the terminology used in the novel consigns the opposing side to the status of rebels, not revolutionaries. Last but not least, whereas Sachi is a fictional character her fairytalesque life is constructed from the circumstances of two different sets of real-life people including a tragic drama involving well-known persons of the time (who also are made to figure in the novel). This setup involves a dramatic license I dislike, but I appreciate that the author made the effort to acknowledge the liberties taken (including a date change). Another sweetener about my edition (Corgi) of The Last Concubine is the generous supplementary material, which to the five-page afterword adds a three-page bibliography, a note of (informative) acknowledgements, and a fourteen-page article** about the architectural layout and hierarchy of the Ōoku, the women’s palace inside Edo Castle, with some additional biographical details about Princess Kazu (Kazunomiya Chikako/Seikan’in) and Lady Tenshō’in (Atsu-hime). The story is told in third person limited point of view, i.e. entirely through Sachi. The intimacy thus gained prevents the disjointedness I suspect would have followed had more viewpoints been added since the storytelling already struggles with sprawl. In any case, as this happens to be my preferred POV it enhanced my engagement with Sachi and fed my curiosity, but those who have already been made restless by the simple plot may find the device too negatively limiting. In addition, while The Last Concubine falls into the category of romantic fiction – and was on the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s shortlist for Best Romantic Novel in 2009 (Julia Gregson won) – the love story does not follow the romance convention of a tight narrative focus on the couple. The relationship development is perfunctory, with long separations and an initial meeting that takes place well into the book. Far more time and depth is allotted to Sachi’s friendships and rivalries with the ladies of the Ōoku. On the other hand, the handling of the love relationship mirrors the respectfulness the hero and heroine show each other and subtly underlines that theirs is a culture with its own rules and behaviours that do not necessarily fit into the format which rests on a European or American understanding of romance. Sachi is an uncomplicated character and, refreshingly, too pragmatic for introspection to lead to brooding or bitterness. The author also allows her and her fellow palace ladies to be products of their period and circumstances. This includes attitudes to class, gender, and race. A world view in which people, especially women, are property is the norm to Sachi and no cause for neurosis. Physical revulsion is shown toward peasants (animal-like),foreigners (ogre-like barbarians), and others (butchers, who deal in death) deemed not quite human, contact with whom is believed to taint and whose lives and worth are valued accordingly. It follows that there is the opposite being, also not quite human: the Emperor, who is revered as godly for his religious mediation between heaven and earth. Even when he joins the opposition against the Tokugawa shogunate the deferential reverence remains stronger than resentment. All this is dealt with in a matter-of-fact yet nuanced fashion, showing that prickling intersection of the real and the imagined without either finger-pointing or hand-wringing. Downer does not explain her characters, allowing the reader space and opportunity to draw her/his own conclusions from their actions and thoughts. As mentioned in the introductory paragraph of this post, characterisation is not one of the book’s stronger points. Most characters remain sketchy. This includes Sachi’s love interest, whom I will refrain from naming since a couple of other candidates briefly emerge as alternative possibilities. He is a suitably heroic and romantic figure but hardly a uniquely memorable hero: there is simply too little substance to his portrayal and no psychological exploration of his feelings for Sachi. That said, the author paints her characters with a compassionate brush, adding dashes of humour and largely avoiding black-and-white, and so reading about their interactions with Sachi brought amusement and even some moments of poignancy. For example Taki, Sachi’s maid and closest friend, endeared herself to me despite the stereotype through the stubborn quality of her loyalty, which bows neither to threats nor to authority. Among the historical personages, the representation of Princess Kazu, sister of the Emperor and wife of the Shogun, is tender but somewhat wooden, emphasising passivity and sadness. While that may reflect her circumstances at Edo, the novel seems to simplify her personality: the story does not, for example, give the reader an idea of her political voice in succession matters or negotiations concerning the fate of Edo Castle and by extension the Tokugawas. A prominent theme is that of emancipation as Sachi’s changed circumstances propel her into growing into someone who must think and decide for herself and learn to assume responsibility for herself. In the war that threatens to destroy life as she knows it lies opportunities many people accustomed to a feudal society never could have dreamt of, because the enemies from the south are spreading ideas shocking to the old order in the north. A victory for the Shogun and the northerners, longed for though it is, would snatch those opportunities away from Sachi. As the city of Edo (now Tokyo) teeters between a feudal society where caste determines fate and family members owe obeisance to their clans, and the modern age in which barriers are being questioned and foreigners bring iron ships and trains onto the sacred soil from which they have long been forbidden, the novel juxtaposes the thousands of isolated women who have only ever known the confines of the Inner Palace with the crowds outside the castle walls. Where once commoners prostrated themselves at the mere approach of members of the nobility, and looking into the face of a lady was forbidden on pain of death, an unsettling refrain begins to be chanted by the displaced, by the poor, by the war weary: “who gives a damn?” But while the historical backdrop looms large – civil war, foreign intrusion into Japanese politics, the destruction of a way of life – The Last Concubine looks at upheavals and transformations mainly from the sheltered perspective of a small handful of socially privileged characters. The novel does not, for example, tell us whether the palace’s lowest ranking servants, called honourable pups or honourable dogs, maids who “lived on leftovers”, shared the aristocratic women’s nostalgia for the pleasures of daily life at the Shogun’s court. And although Sachi experiences loss and danger, ultimately, in keeping with a romantic tone, her journey is told in the brisk style of an adventure instead of being a fatalistic account of wartime trauma. Here and there we glimpse other destinies, misery and hardship, but the focus remains closely on Sachi’s development from innocent girl to a young woman forging a path for herself through uncertain times and falling in love along the way, reasonably insulated from the deprivations of the masses. In other words, the portrayal of war is mostly reduced to an exciting or stirring backdrop for Sachi’s escapades, including some nice action sequences showcasing the fighting skills of female samurai. (In case anyone is curious: although some women warriors participated as active combatants in the civil war battles (including at Aizu (Wakamatsu), which occurs off-page but is described in The Last Concubine), Sachi does not.) Expect some graphic violence in the descriptions of these smaller-scale clashes and fights, and detailed gore in one scene depicting the aftermath of a major battle. A debut novel, The Last Concubine is not without considerable narrative awkwardness, particularly before the story warms up. As stated before, Lesley Downer’s first foray into publishing was on the non-fiction side and it shows, most notably in the disparity between confident subject-matter expertise and deficient novelistic techniques. The author has so much information to share that the story bursts onto the pages of the first chapter in a jumbled sprawl that pulls in all directions and includes both substantial flashbacks and a hefty dose of exposition. Those reading principally for plot may need to draw a long breath as they pick through the haphazard threads; in fact the first quarter or so of The Last Concubine will probably require the reader either to exercise patience or to be a devoted armchair traveller: not much happens in terms of story development and the pacing is languorous. The setting is not mere backdrop or a character in itself; it is the unruly star that runs away with the show. Every so often, particularly in the first quarter of the book, it felt to me that Sachi was not so much a character as a facilitator for a guided visit to a place and a period. The historical material out-proportions and can be more interesting than the story, which is sparse enough in the beginning to read like a non-fiction example of a palace woman rising through the ranks. The plot remains simple and low in tension throughout book, not much beefed up by a couple of drawn-out, rather wan twists. The author’s tendency for repetitive imagery, wording, and flashbacks stood out to me as rough spots in the editing. Most disappointing, however, was the execution of the climax. It is a setback in Sachi’s character arc, undoing her growth in robbing her of agency. In view of these problems, what kept me reading? Without question my fascination with the intricate historical setting was the main factor. The author rolls her story into so much that was unknown to me that while I registered the flaws I was usually kept too pleasantly busy to have the problems drag down the reading experience. Beyond that, however, Downer’s warm, vigorous voice is smooth and this was instrumental in helping to offset the flawed narrative structure. Happily, too, The Last Concubine is a novel that improves as it progresses. As Sachi slowly grows into her own as a heroine and ceases to feel like a generic inhabitant of Edo palace, a more personal and persuasive story unfolds from its non-fiction-style wrapping. When the world the palace women have known comes crashing down, the story, too, begins to stir. The later parts of the book are significantly better balanced in regards to story versus setting. And despite its chaotic structure even the opening chapter makes for fun armchair travel because Downer displays an observant eye, reassuring subject-matter knowledge, and an engaging voice. The author is deft at visuals, often to pretty effect, and knows how to stimulate the senses with smells and sounds. During my ten-day holiday read ofThe Last Concubine I remained aware of its flaws but in the end was rather charmed despite them. Not surprisingly, I really liked the book for being a light, entertaining travel read that has helped to (somewhat) demystify a culture which while offering much I can intellectually admire has as often presented a challenge to my emotional understanding. I look forward to Lesley Downer’s upcoming, third historical novel, Across A Bridge Of Dreams, which hopefully will show significant maturation in her transition from writing non-fiction to being a novelist. On that note, I feel I must stress that while I came away from The Last Concubine with positive impressions, readers wanting primarily character-driven or plot-driven historical fiction will in all likelihood have a far less satisfying time than serious armchair travellers. But if you are itching for a look inside the Versailles of Japan and the city Europeans called the Venice of the East , The Last Concubine may be just the ticket.“For a moment Sachi stood in silence, gazing at this building that had been her home for so many years. If only this too might be a dream. But the freezing cold told her all to clearly that it was not. She shivered. Even the layers of padded silk were not enough to protect her. Groups of ladies-in-waiting huddled at the doors to the palanquin sheds. They stared at Sachi with wide, envious eyes as the guards bowed and escorted her into the imperial garages. The princess’s palanquin stood open. Sachi looked at it with a shock of recognition. It was the same one she had seen years before when Princess Kazu and her entourage had arrived in the village. Everything was just as she remembered – the lacquered red walls fretted with gold and marked with the imperial chrysanthemum, the ornate gold roof and the bamboo window blinds hung with fat red tassels. It seemed all too obvious that if the princess was really trying to escape, she would never travel in such a showy conveyance. An image flashed into Sachi’s mind of the woman who had stepped from this splendid vehicle when she had seen it as a child, back in the village. She remembered her wide terrified eyes. Even then she had guessed that the woman was a decoy for the princess, which was why she had been so afraid. It was Sachi’s turn now. She was a samurai, a warrior. She would not be afraid – or, if she was, no one would ever see it.”

  14. 4 out of 5

    Suz Suz

    Vivid descriptions of war scenarios where the civil war in Japan gone thru, indeed we learnt from history the path towards civilization and enlightenment was never a sweet experience from many. As a fan for historical fiction, this book contains the life style of the women surrounding the shogun.... It's a sweet ending and im contended with that..

  15. 4 out of 5

    M.L. Sparrow

    This book is a beautiful story of a lost culture. It grabbed both my interest and my imagination, though I felt it was a little slow to being with. Lesley Downer described Sachi's world in beautiful detail and her characters were understandable and relatable, despite the fact that they lived in such a different world to the one we live in. It was really strange to think that Sachi was only a teenager; at the end of the book she is twenty-two and yet it seems like she was lived her whole life. The This book is a beautiful story of a lost culture. It grabbed both my interest and my imagination, though I felt it was a little slow to being with. Lesley Downer described Sachi's world in beautiful detail and her characters were understandable and relatable, despite the fact that they lived in such a different world to the one we live in. It was really strange to think that Sachi was only a teenager; at the end of the book she is twenty-two and yet it seems like she was lived her whole life. The way that Japan changed in the 19th century was sad, it didn't happen gradually like most things, but all at once and that was really felt throughout the whole book and at the end, I found myself mourning the loss of such a engaging culture, despite its flaws, especially the end of the Samari, who seemed so heroic and honerable, yet their lives and beliefs were rendered useless against modern weapons. It was also interesting to see the attitude towards women. The ladies in the palace were cossetted and hidden from the outside world, and yet they were skilled fighters - it was all very surreal! Also it was strange to see how the Japanese people must have viewed Westerners when we first appeared in Japan, how strange and alien they found our appearance and customs - chivelrous behaviour like helping a woman was seen as strange and beneath them. I also found it very moving that in a culture where there was no word for 'love' and kissing was something a respectable lady didn't do, Sachi and Shin had a truly moving love story. I applaud Lesley Downer for that. It also seemed as though there was a lot of love going around though, no mattr what the characters called it, after all, the only reason Sach was born waas because her mother loved her father. I also liked that, though the story was fictional, most of the characters were based on real people during that time and the author attempted to stick to the true events of their lives. Going into this book, I did have a brief knowledge of Japanese history, but I still found this book eye opening and it's left me longing to return to Japan! I will definitely be reading more from this author! For more reviews and to see my favourite quotes from this book, check out my blog at http://mlsparrow.wix.com/mlsparrow

  16. 4 out of 5

    Grada (BoekenTrol)

    http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/8... This book lived up to almost all expectations the title woke with me. It is the story of the life of a young village girl that is taken to the palace of the shogun by his young wife. When the shogun dies, her story continues, although it is completely upside down because of all the political upheaval that was going on in Japan around the 1850's. I loved reading this book. I am already interested in 'the east', meaning that I know a tiny bit about ronin, sam http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/8... This book lived up to almost all expectations the title woke with me. It is the story of the life of a young village girl that is taken to the palace of the shogun by his young wife. When the shogun dies, her story continues, although it is completely upside down because of all the political upheaval that was going on in Japan around the 1850's. I loved reading this book. I am already interested in 'the east', meaning that I know a tiny bit about ronin, samoerai. This book added to that knowledge and it was a great read. Smoothly I followed Sachi's life from one stage to another and yet through more changes. It felt like I was there with her, it was almost like I could smell the pipes, the perfumes, hear the rustling of the kimono's. It is a novel, not necessarily historical right. I do not know very much about the (political) history of Japan, but the story sounds very plausible. Not that it would have bothered me very much if there were things that are not correct: after all it is a novel, a story, made up by the author, based on historical facts. Well done, when you ask me... The only thing that this book lacked for me was that there was not a longer story about the 'concubine-time'. Being the title of the book I would have expected more. And I do not mean the sexual side of it, but more about the rules, the ways of treating one another, her life in the side chamber(s) while being a concubine. Nevertheless I give it 5 stars.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Gege

    this book.., tell us bout the life inside the ooku (woman palace, place that shogun/ placed his concubines..).. tell us the story about the struggle of a young woman, sachi to find her love, her destiny, her mother, her happiness through her life as the last concubine

  18. 5 out of 5

    Pauline

    I absolutely loved this book.A story about the old traditional ways of Japan.Will be looking out for anything else she has written.Just looked on Fantastic Fiction and this is her first Fiction book.Hopefully it's not to long till she writes the 2nd.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Tracey Tester

    I really enjoyed this book. I liked the storyline and the characters. I also learned quite a bit about the Japanese culture of the time - without being too confused (which is always a bonus !!). Would definitely read another book by this author.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Ann

    Reading this genre prior to a trip to Japan. I have no idea of how accurate this book is. But it is a really good read. it keeps you turning the pages. It is full of intresting facts and observations. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Adeline

    I'm a bit stuck, because while I find the cultural aspects of 19th century Japan quite interesting, the plot itself isn't that great and the pace is way too slow. To be honest, I think Mrs. Downer should go back to writing non-fiction books.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    A riveting and enjoyable read. It provide a glimpse into court life during a tumultuous time in Japanese history. The characters are believable and, as a result, their struggles and hardships moved me as the reader.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Michelle B

    Fantastic book! This had all the things I love most about historical fiction set in foreign cultures! It's well written, captivating, true to the reality while still being an enchanting story, and I learned things I didn't know before.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Feebles

    Could not put this novel down. based on historical facs, yet a great yarn woven by Lesley Downer

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jo-anne

    I enjoyed this very long book. Believable and likable characters and richly detailed about an important and turbulent time in Japanese history.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Claire

    An interesting look at the history of Japan - although long my interest did not wane.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Maartje

    Very enjoyable. I love fiction that teaches me something, and this book definitely did. I learned a lot about Japan's history and the life there.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    I really loved reading this book. Gives you the romance, history and intrigue in this book

  29. 4 out of 5

    Georgine Leung

    showing how the the status of women in the oriental world changed in the last two centuries

  30. 4 out of 5

    Seonaidmcintosh

    Trying to be as good as memoirs of a geisha, but failing. Some of the historical bits were really interesting (and I believe pretty factual) but other than that, not great

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