Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War, Volume 2 by Shiba Ryotaro
|Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War, Volume 2 by Shiba Ryotaro|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Iain Wear|
|Summary: As in the first volume, the combination of detailed history and high drama works perfectly. Depending on your viewpoint, this is either incredibly readable history, or a thoroughly detailed thriller. Either way, it's a great read.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 424||Date: December 2012|
Since it was originally published in the 1970s, Shiba Ryōtarō's Clouds Above the Hill: A historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War has become Japan's best selling novel of all time. After reading volume 1, this comes as no surprise as it's an incredible read that left me desperate to see what Volume 2 had in store.
If Volume 1 built up the characters of Masaoka Shiki and the Akiyama brothers, Volume 2 is a book more about war than about people, at least as individuals. Very early in this volume, Masaoka Shiki passes away at a very young age and so fades from the story. Shortly afterwards, as the war with Russia becomes more inevitable and Japan's preparations for this really kick into gear, the Akiyama brothers blend a little more into the cast of characters working on the war effort and whilst their names appear fairly regularly, we don't follow their stories as closely as before.
The bulk of this volume is taken up with the machinations of the war, looking at it from all possible fronts. The story switches between the Japanese and Russian Navies, both with their preparations and their times besieging Port Arthur and fighting in the waters nearby. The Army, meanwhile, is fighting on two fronts, laying siege to Port Arthur by land and fighting further North around Liaoyang. We also get to read about the internal squabbles between Army and Navy at Port Arthur and the political wrangling in both the Japanese and Russian political systems.
Where Volume 1 felt like a history book with asides more than it did a historical novel, Volume 2 feels even more like a textbook, especially once the opening chapters which still had the non-combatant Masaoka Shiki featured. Once he has gone and the Akiyama brothers fade into the background and feature only as their actions as part of the Japanese war effort dictate, the main characters are no longer people, but the opposing nations and their armies and even within the Japanese Army and Navy, the Akiyama brothers rarely feature, with the focus more on their superior officers.
Assuming historical accuracy, I'm stunned at the sheer level of detail that has gone into this volume in particular. It feels as if every skirmish that occurred on every battlefield, whether on land or on water, every conversation that occurred between commanders in the field or every set of battle orders passed down from high command is mentioned here. It's not just the results of the decisions made and how they ultimately affected the war's outcome that are included, but the discussions that led to those decisions being made and how the people who had to act upon those decisions felt about it. Considering the author is Japanese and not from a neutral nation, he does a spectacular job of following the war from both sides, in all spheres of combat and at all levels in the chain of command, from Emperor and Tsar to common soldier. Admittedly, there is a bias towards the Japanese side in terms of word count, but that's only to be expected, given the writer.
With the degree of information here, it would have been easy for the book to get bogged down in minutiae, but this doesn't happen. Part of the reason for this is the constantly shifting focus of the story. With Shiba looking at things from both sides of the war and from both Army and Navy, this gives him lots of different areas to focus on, with both Armies and the Russian Navy split into two parts and the behind the scenes political angles to work from. He switches between stories so skilfully that there isn't time to get bored with one part of it before the focus changes to another.
With the war being fought in fairly sharp bursts, this means that the pace of the story is kept very high. Once again, Shiba crosses genres perfectly, with the story having the pace of a thriller, but the detail of a history text. What makes the story even better is that it's not told from one perspective, as it covers the psychological impact of the war on both commanders and soldiers, again on both sides. He doesn't quite give the physical feeling of the battlefield quite as well as someone like Ben Kane, but he writes with enough detail that the impact comes through clearly.
I did feel that this book was missing a little of the human aspect that was prevalent in Volume 1, as the people here are part of the Army or Navy more than they are individuals and they are soldiers first and men second. I also found it a little difficult to keep actions in the correct order as the story covered the war in sections determined more by location than by date. But it was still an enthralling and engaging read and the only real disappointment was that, once again, it ended rather abruptly at a point that left this reader hanging, yet desperate for more.
For how the Japanese fight against a more natural enemy, Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan's Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster by Lucy Birmingham and David McNeill is worth a look.
You can read more book reviews or buy Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War, Volume 2 by Shiba Ryotaro at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War, Volume 2 by Shiba Ryotaro at Amazon.com.
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