The telling: stupendous. One is kept reading; one intrigue after another, one tense situation resolving in an aggravated complication after another all the way to the end. I don’t know if the key is just to be always interesting, but if that is the key, it works. It is interesting almost always, and the book is over 1100 pages.
The situation: a clash of cultures, with the alien culture having the upper hand. The first 300 pages were hard culture shock for our hero and for me. It really is intriguing just for that alone. In the end, the book is about a long, painful adjustment, you might say, and if you look at everything in that light, everything is enlightening. At least for me, he left me feeling that I satisfactorily understand something of Japan. (The book was originally recommended to me for that.) Satisfactorily? That you have something to go on and you could definitely use more.
The characters: most varied and intriguing. Not all the satisfactions here one could wish for, but I think that also is part of the point (see The situation, above). But if you love honor and pride and martial glory, etc., if after this book you are wondering if in a previous life you were not perhaps Japanese, then there are great moments awaiting you. And with the luxury of 1100 pages, he can round out an awful lot of the characters, and he does.
The way: he is most cunning, Clavel, leading you in, Oh very yes! And in the whole sprawling thing nothing struck me as wasted–and it was only the first time. Not sure if his weakness is that it might not be a re-reader. If a lot of your draw is the intrigue, well, that is kind of lost the second time around (thought I’m very good at forgetting exactly how a plot got from start to finish and am regularly surprised on re-reading things). It is a shallow book if that’s all it depends on, but I am not ready to say that yet. So much atmosphere, so much character in the balance, so much poignancy of description. In a few years a re-reading perhaps? I can see it working, Oh very yes.
Note: I’ve read King Rat and I found it intelligently written, with every part in place and the experience in the end valuable. That’s what Clavel seems to give me more than anything, a sense of experience. You are left thinking about the world, slightly altered, going over things in your head, digesting, grateful.