To say I’m excited to be on tour with author Lesley Downer today is an understatement. I make no secret of the fact that I absolutely adored her novel The Shogun’s Queen and was delighted when Lesley mentioned the possibility of joining the blog-tour.
Today I have a wonderful post from Lesley about the women of the Shogun’s Palace in Edo, with some gorgeous images to accompany the piece. I have also reposted my review, in case you missed it the first time around.
It is also an absolute honour to be hosting Lesley today as it is the publication day of the paperback edition of The Shogun’s Queen, so I just want to wish Lesley heartfelt congratulations and ongoing success with this glorious novel.
Please do continue reading and I so hope you enjoy….
In Lesley’s own words her books are ‘set in the most fascinating and dramatic period in Japanese history, the fifteen years when the country was convulsed by civil war and virtually overnight transformed from rule by the shoguns into a society that looked to the west. At the end of the war the Women’s Palace was closed down for ever and the three thousand women who had lived there, some of them all their lives, to serve the shogun, were turned out onto the streets. I wondered what became of them all, for most were from families on the losing side, who had been defeated in the war. But all were sworn to secrecy and few ever revealed anything of what had gone on behind the closed doors of the Palace. My imagination went to work and thus this series of novels was born. I’ve loved absorbing myself in the world of nineteenth century Japan.
Firstly here is some information about Lesley’s novel The Shogun’s Queen:
Japan, and the year is 1853.
Japan teeters on the brink of turmoil…
Growing up among the samurai of the Satsuma Clan, in Japan’s deep south, the fiery, beautiful and headstrong Okatsu has – like all the clan’s women – been encouraged to be bold, taught to wield the halberd, and to ride a horse.
But when she is just seventeen, four black ships appear. Bristling with cannon and manned by strangers who to the Japanese eyes are barbarians, their appearance threatens Japan’s very existence. And turns Okatsu’s world upside down.
Chosen by her feudal lord, she has been given a very special role to play. Given a new name – Princess Atsu – and a new destiny, she is the only one who can save the realm. Her journey takes her to Edo Castle, a place so secret that it cannot be marked on any map. There, sequestered in the Women’s Palace – home to three thousand women, and where only one man may enter: the shogun – she seems doomed to live out her days. But beneath the palace’s immaculate facade, there are whispers of murders and ghosts. It is here that Atsu must complete her mission and discover one last secret – the secret of the man whose fate is irrevocably linked to hers: the shogun himself . . .’
The Shogun’s Queen – the Women’s Palace at Edo Castle
by Lesley Downer
Hello, Mairead. Thank you for allowing me to post on your blog today! I really appreciate it.
I’d like to tell you and your readers a little about the setting for The Shogun’s Queen – the Women’s Palace at Edo Castle.
Edo Castle was like Louis XIV’s Versailles, a place of fabulous riches, of unimaginable beauty and luxury. Its mammoth granite battlements and gleaming roofs towered above the great city of Edo, the largest city in the world – which we now call Tokyo.
An enormous complex of buildings a mile across and four miles in circumference, it was like Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament rolled into one. It was where the shogun – the military governor – lived and, with the help of an army of government officials, ruled the country.
The Bridge and Great Gate of the Women’s Palace, photographed in the 1870s.
Inside the mammoth walls were three palaces – the Outer Palace where the shogun gave audiences; the Middle Palace where he lived with his male attendants; and the vast Inner Palace, the Women’s Palace, cut off from the other buildings by a solid wall which sliced right through the complex. In this wall there was just one door which only one man could step through – the shogun.
Inside were rank upon rank of elegant white-walled buildings with dove grey roofs, linked by walkways with delicately fretted wooden railings. All around were landscaped gardens, large and small, with tinkling waterfalls and ponds full of leaping orange and gold carp.
Three thousand women lived here, sweeping through the corridors and across the great halls in elaborate kimonos, wafting perfume. Like all adult women in Japan at that time they painted their teeth black, shaved their eyebrows and smudged in feathery charcoal ‘moth wing’ eyebrows high on their foreheads. They powdered their faces stark white, painted their lips with red safflower paste and wore their hair in great oiled, coiled, perfumed loops.
Their days were spent in endless leisure.
In summer they held tea ceremonies on the stages besides the lake, went boating in red-lacquered pleasure barges or had poetry-writing competitions in one of the moon-viewing pavilions.
In winter they played the incense guessing game or the shell matching game or performed plays and masques. They feasted under the cherry blossoms in spring and performed graceful dances at the height of summer.
Life in the Women’s Palace (as imagined by the artist Hashimoto Chikanobu)
But life was not all pleasure. There was a serious purpose to the palace.
Every day at ten in the morning, two in the afternoon and eight in the evening, the highest-ranking women swished through the halls to the long corridor which led to the double door that linked the men’s and women’s palaces. Shaven-headed nuns unfastened the lock, drew aside the golden bolt and slid open the door. Men waited on the other side, but only one stepped through: the shogun.
For him the Women’s Palace was his home. In the men’s palaces he was surrounded by plot and intrigue and rival courtiers jostling for position. In the Inner Palace, among his womenfolk, he could relax.
But life was not so relaxing for the women. As they knelt waiting to greet the shogun, the words that all the younger women hoped to hear were, ‘What is her name?’ This was the code that meant they had caught the shogun’s eye and he wished to spend the night with them.
For the real purpose of the palace was to make sure that the shogun had an heir and that any child born there was his son and no one else’s.
The women all wanted their child to become the next shogun and as a result there was endless backbiting, jealousy and sometimes murder. Some babies were smothered at birth to make sure they didn’t supplant another woman’s son.
Shogun being served by his ladies (Tableau, Nijo Castle, Kyoto)
Nun with shogun (Life in the Women’s Palace at Edo Castle)
This was the gilded cage that my heroine Princess Atsu found herself in when she arrived in the Women’s Palace. I tell her poignant and tragic story in The Shoguns’ Queen.
Thank you so much Lesley..how incredibly fascinating and the images are just stunning.
Please do continue reading for my review of The Shogun’s Queen and also details of the other stops on the tour.
‘Only one woman can save her world from barbarian invasion but to do so will mean sacrificing everything she holds dear – love, loyalty and maybe life itself . . .’
The Shogun’s Queen from Lesley Downer is a very special book.
Published by Bantam Press November 2016, it is one of those books that I hope my review will do justice to, but it is suffice to say that I absolutely loved it.
Okatsu, a young innocent girl born into a position of status within her own community, is a warrior. Unwilling to become just another unheard female in a world controlled by men, Okatsu is not ashamed to speak up and express her opinions. She is trained in martial arts and ensures her mind remains active and educated.
The world is changing. China and Japan are no longer able to hide their existence from the rest of the world.
China is already under the oppression of the Crown and other nations. Japan, a very proud empire, is unwilling to lose sight of what they hold dear and refuses to trade with the ‘Barbarian’ countries. The Dutch have been granted limited access to Japanese treasures but the rest of the world is curious. Other nations want to discover for themselves the secrets that remain hidden behind the cherry blossom trees and the protected castle walls.
Okatsu attracts the eye of a friend of her father, Lord Nariakira Shimazu, Prince of Satsuma. He is a man of wisdom and sees in Okatsu a person who is destined for greater things. With her family’s permission, Okatsu sets off on a journey that will take her to Edo (now Tokoyo), the home of The Emperor, The Shogun, ‘He who shall not be Named’.
Edo is home of the Tokugawa shogunate. At it’s head is the Shogun, Iesada, a member of the Tokugawa clan. Iesada is a man of strange character, who remains closeted behind the walls of his castle, a recluse with only his overbearing mother to influence his decisions.
The ‘Black Ships’ of the barbarians are arriving at the Japanese coastlines with demands for a share of the wealth that Japan has to offer.
Lord Nariakira is a political strategist. People are but pawns on his chess board and he is very aware that Japan is facing a catastrophic challenge that will change the life of it’s citizens forever.
With assistance, he moves Okatsu around his ‘chess board’ until she achieves what she herself never anticipated. Her life continues inside the walls in The Great Interior (The Women’s Palace) as the Shogun’s consort, his queen.
Okatsu sacrifices so much along the way. She is exposed to the politics of a country caught between Civil War amongst it’s tribal Lords and outright war with the Barbarians. It becomes Okatsu’s job to prevent the destruction of their beautiful land. She has to weave her way into the centre of a tangled knot of deceit and lies. She risks everything for her country. She abandons all that is dear to her and fights using her mind and her will.
The Shogun’s Queen is based on a true story. Most of the characters in Lesley Downer’s novel are real.
‘The story, as I tell it, is largely based on research and historical fact, though in the end this is a work of fiction.’ ~ Lesley Downer
The story of Okatsu is a very special story.
Her strength, her determination, her sacrifice for her beloved Japan and it’s people is a testament to the type of person she was. Okatsu was a warrior. Her story lives on in Lesley Downer’s book and I cannot recommend or encourage you enough to buy yourself a wonderful gift of The Shogun’s Queen.
The Shogun’s Queen is a monumental novel about a time in history many of us have only scant knowledge of.
It is a wonderful work of historical fiction and to be honest I am not quite sure I have sufficient adjectives to describe it’s ability to transport the reader to a period of such fascinating beauty and a time of such a tumultuous history.
Every so often you pick up a book and savor every single word. The decision is made that you have in your hand a book that cannot be rushed. The Shogun’s Queen had all these qualities and more that I love in a book. I relished the five minutes I got to read a few pages and made sure not to miss a line.
I hope you get an opportunity to read this exceptional book. Please do let me know if you do. I would love to know your thoughts…
(NOTE : The Shogun’s Queen is the fourth book that Lesley Downer has written about this turbulent time in Japanese history. Do not be put off by the order of the books. Although this is the last of four, it is a prequel to the other three.)
The Bridge and Great Gate of the Women’s Palace today
Lesley Downer’s mother was Chinese and her father a professor of Chinese, so she grew up in a house full of books on Asia. But it was Japan, not China, that proved the more alluring and Lesley lived there for some fifteen years. She lives in London with her husband, the author Arthur I. Miller, and travels to Japan yearly.
She has written many books about Japan and its culture, including Geisha: The Secret History of the Vanishing World and the gripping Shogun Quartet; The Last Concubine, The Courtesan and the Samurai and The Samurai’s Daughter. The Shogun’s Queen is the first book in the series.
Website ~ http://www.lesleydowner.com/
Twitter ~ @LesleyDowner