Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War, Volume 1 by Shiba Ryotaro

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Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War, Volume 1 by Shiba Ryotaro

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Iain Wear
Reviewed by Iain Wear
Summary: An incredible read that has all the detail of a history book, yet all the drama of a carefully plotted thriller. The Japanese writing style works perfectly, as does pretty much every aspect of the book.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: December 2012
Publisher: Routledge
ISBN: 978-0415508766

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I've long been a lover of Japan, ever since a brief visit to the country more than a decade ago. Whilst I've read several Japanese crime thrillers in translation, I've never really investigated the history of the country. Now available in English for the first time, Shiba Ryotaro's Clouds Above the Hill: A historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War provides just that opportunity.

This first volume covers the period up to the start of that conflict. It's a story of a Japan which, at the end of the nineteenth century, is going through great changes following the Meiji revolution. These changes eventually allowed Japan to become more outward looking than the country had previously been. This bought them into cooperation and conflict with other nations, resulting in the war between China and Japan which occurred a few years before the conflict with Russia and which forms a major part of this volume.

As well as the history of the time, the novel focuses on the lives of the Akiyama brothers, Yoshifuru and Saneyuki, and their friend Masaoaka Shiki. The three men's lives cover differing paths, with Yoshifuru joining the Army at a young age and progressing within the cavalry, whilst Shiki, afflicted with poor health and a creative bent, becomes a writer and poet. Saneyuki straddles both worlds, having early desires to become a writer, but is forced to abandon them due to financial constraints and becomes a senior figure in the swiftly expanding Japanese Navy.

The books is incredibly detailed and with the level of information here regarding the history of Japan and the building up of both Army and Navy, it's tough to see the book as a historical novel in the traditional sense. Considering the likes of Spartacus: Rebellion by Ben Kane are historical novels which use history as the starting point for a novel, Ryotaro's detailed retelling of history makes it feel more like a work of history with added asides, rather than what I would normally consider historical fiction. Indeed, rather than being a novel based on history, it feels more as if history itself is a major character in the novel.

What also helps give this impression is the writing style. The Japanese use of language tends to be a little more formal than Western readers may be used to, which can take a little adjustment, but here it works perfectly. The slightly more formal style helps the novel fall somewhere between a history text and a standard war thriller and the compromise between the two makes it feel a little like a biography more than anything else. In a way, this is what it is, given that we're following the major characters through historical events, albeit with a little embellishment on the author's part – something which can sometimes also be said of autobiographies.

Much praise for this should go to the translators, Paul McCarthy and Juliet Winters Carpenter. I've read translations of Japanese thrillers that try too hard to Westernise the language and that would have taken a lot away from the historical aspects of this story. I was initially concerned that having two different translators would affect the consistency of the segments, but both parts were equally well done. The second seemed a little easier to read, but this may have been more due to my becoming used to the writing style or the increase in pace of events than any differences in translation style.

Quite simply, this is an incredible read that succeeds on all levels. I'm not a huge fan of history, but Ryotaro's telling of it flows beautifully, such that sometimes I forgot I was reading anything other than a work of fiction. At the same time, the sheer level of detail matches anything Tom Clancy has written, but without getting bogged down in too much technical detail the way Clancy's work often can. It also never loses sight of the human aspect of events, either at home in Japan, or overseas fighting or preparing for war.

Those with a greater knowledge of Japanese history than I may baulk at Ryotaro's additions, but those who enjoy stories of war and politics will find this up there with the best of them. The more formal writing style may seem a little strange at first, but once you've adjusted to that, this is an intricately described, yet still very flowing read. Indeed, the only downside I found was that Ryotaro builds the story up so well that when this first volume ends at a very pivotal point, I found myself at a loss returning to the real world. This may be a book published in several volumes, but I defy anyone to read just one.

For those looking to find out more about the Japanese generally, try Japan Through The Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane, or for something more recent, check out Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan's Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster by Lucy Birmingham and David McNeill

Buy Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War, Volume 1 by Shiba Ryotaro at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War, Volume 1 by Shiba Ryotaro at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War, Volume 1 by Shiba Ryotaro at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War, Volume 1 by Shiba Ryotaro at Amazon.com.


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Vilnagaon said:

One would imagine that such an enthusiast for things Japanese would know the conventions of Japanese names, which, as I understand it, put surname before "first" name. Therefore, the author of this work is known as "Shiba Ryotaro" in Japan but would be called "Ryotaro Shiba" in English-speakers' practice. Seeing the author referred to by his first name throughout the review is disconcerting, though Mr. Shiba might not have cared a bit.

An American Prig


Sue said:

We apologise if we've caused any offence - it was certainly not intended.