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HFC Editorial Review of "An Age of War and Tea" by David Klason

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Editorial Review:

A man who cheats death regrets life.”

The sweet smell of the sandalwood incense he had burnt inside his helmet lingered in the morning air and he smiled. Should he lose his head this day, he would take comfort in knowing that a fragrant aroma would greet his enemy.

Oh my, where to begin with this story. Some stories linger with you like the incense Atsuji Sadahide burned in his helmet, and this is one of those stories. Let me forewarn you ahead of time, to anyone reading this review and considering reading this novel – you must prepare yourself like a stealthy Ninja to traverse the deep and winding prose and the confluence of Japanese names BUT I assure you the effort in your training will be all worth it in the end.

For my part, while it took a bit to sort out the main characters and the developing storyline, I was utterly astounded at the amount of research the author did to create this legend of a book. As one who has researched the twisted and tangled Celtic histories of Scotland, I bow to the similar veins threading through this fight for power within the clans and districts of Japan, the rise of the Shogun, and the honour of some pretty frightening traditions such as seppuku (honor suicide) and mass viewing stages set up for the Shogun to view the mountains of heads acquired after a battle.

Like the manipulated branches of a bonsai, twisted this way and that to control the growth and power of the tree, the characters rising from the powerful trunk of the opposing families in this story is breathtaking – Yoshimasa, the young Samurai in the employ of Mochizuki Chiyo, a trained female Ninja operative under the warlord, Shingen, seeks to find another Kunoichi (female Ninja), to tie up the loose ends in the continuing battle for power and the ultimate rule of Japan. The female Ninja is hiding in plain sight, a courtesan, a Geisha named Yoshino, but her past and memories spur her to push forward the agendas of those rising to power, but also her own agenda in finding the man who violated her at a young age, and the child taken from her.

But along the way, a small boy enters the arena, a nobody, a boy sent to on an errand to find a special tea service for the Abbot of Enryakuji-ji. The boy, Sakichi, is well trained in the time honoured tradition of the tea ceremony, and has an eye for detecting fakes and pieces of high value. But he finds himself taken by warriors to Lord Nobunaga and his General, Hideyoshi, as if destiny blew the wind in his direction and moved him along a Go board – a game of swords, samurai, assassins, and castles. Like a pawn, he is used to spy, listening in on secret conversations and singing like a ‘songbird’ to his employers.

Yet, in this game of strategy, Chiyo holds a secret about the young boy and his connection to a powerful war lord, and her strange affair with Yoshimasa, the young Samurai, has her flitting in and out of the political machinations like a skilled butterfly, leading to the wife of the head of the Takeda clan who is set to bring down Nobunaga. But she underestimates Yoshino after Yoshino discovers a secret about the boy, Sakichi, when she is sent to train him for his Samurai initiation.

One by one, the pieces rise and fall, win and lose, secrets spill, and heads are severed from their bodies in true Samurai-style, all while Yoshino travels across the regions to discover the truth about the boy, Sakichi, whose Samurai name becomes Ishida Mitsunari.

And Mitsunari finds his own uplifting wind, rising in the ranks of Nobunaga’s army after it is revealed that he learned how to use a matchlock from the Portuguese traders on the days he sought special tea services for the Abbot. His value becomes very great in the war lord’s eyes who is ignorant of the boy’s secret heritage.

When the clans clash in a great battle, and Mitsunari helps Nobunaga win the day, his star is set; all the while Yoshino must face a truth she never knew about the child she lost – and to protect him she must make the highest sacrifice a mother can make for her child... or will she?

This book is one for the ages, and ranks right up there with Shogun by James Clavell. For anyone who loves an immersive story, full of power struggles, life-changing secrets, and the full richness of the ancient exotic history of Japan, then this is a must read. My one caveat in all this is the openly splayed depiction of the honour killings and suicides which were hard to take, although Mr Klason’s vast knowledge of the reality of the culture overshadows the harshness. For that alone, for the encyclopedic brain the author must have to traverse such an incredible storyline, it is worthy of ten stars.

Here are a few of my favourite passages:

The tea ceremony is not just about enlightenment and striving for perfection. It is also a valuable tool of state. Wars have been averted by simply having rival Daimyo engage with each other using the ritual of the tea ceremony and even trade expensive tea ware for territory. You must understand that tea ware is now a measure of status and power and is useful in the motivation of vassals.”

Life and passion are but fleeting moments in the cycle of life.”

And I would go on to relay the story of the Samurai who seeks the help of a Kensei (sword master) to teach him how to die with honour – the Kensei asks a tea master to perform a ceremony to instruct the Samurai about the lessons the ceremony can teach... but I will let you read the story to hear the powerful lesson, one that resonates in the storyline.

An Age of War and Tea by David Klason is a powerful, consuming, sometimes elegant, sometimes brutal account of a fierce time in Japanese history; and earns five worthy stars from The Historical Fiction Company along with the “Highly Recommended” award.

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