Blossoms and Shadows: Readers might not find what they are looking for

Blossoms and Shadows by Lian Hearn science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsBlossoms and Shadows by Lian Hearn science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsBlossoms and Shadows by Lian Hearn

Japan in 1857 is in turmoil. Internal divisions mean the country is on the brink of civil war, whilst after centuries of isolation, the country has also opened its doors to the west. In the midst of this instability, Tsuru, a doctor’s daughter, wishes to study medicine, but the only expectation her father has for her is to marry.

After the hugely successful TALES OF THE OTORI series, Lian Hearn returns with a very different kind of novel in Blossoms and Shadows (2010). The evocative setting of Japan is still used as a backdrop, but this story is a historical one, largely without the fantastical elements of the Otori series.

Tsuru has harboured an interest for medicine since helping her father in his own medical practice. As a woman, she would never be seriously considered in the profession, but her father’s patients come to know and trust her and she quickly realises she has a skill.

However, in the midst of civil unrest, Tsuru is unsure how long her position of stability with her father will last. Her parents are desperate for her to marry, though Tsuru fears this will be the end of her role as a pseudo-doctor. What’s more, her uncle goes to join a radical teacher preaching equality and learning that go against the samurai’s code.

After a suitable match is found, Tsuru is not only able to continue practising medicine, but also begins to question her role as a woman. When a mentally ill patient requests that she dress as a man, she finds that she likes the role. She begins to question the limitations set on her as a woman, limitations that have restricted her for the entirety of her life, and gradually adapts the characteristics of men.

Tsuru finds herself plagued by visions. She is able to see the eventual deaths some of her colleagues and comrades will face, often seeing gruesome flashes of mortal wounds and injuries. Her husband rationalises the visions and tells Tsuru to record them as she would a patient’s symptoms, but these touches of horror serve to emphasise the brutal massacres and crimes of the samurai during the civil war.

One of the problems of the novel is that Hearn’s story is simply too large. Tsuru’s story is compelling in itself, but it is interspersed with multiple threads of minor characters who often have little impact on the story proper. This period in Japanese history is immensely fraught and complicated, and one cannot help but feel that Hearn has been caught up somewhere between history and fiction, not quite able to do either justice.

Complicated names and events confuse matters further. Whereas in the TALES OF THE OTORI series there were maps and family trees of the various tribes and their supernatural powers, Blossoms and Shadows has neither, despite being a more complex and far-reaching story. The characters are also less engaging than assassins of the Otori series, though Tsuru’s challenging of female norms is a great pleasure to read.

Blossoms and Shadows still evokes the breathtaking scenery of Japan, even if the story and characters are far less vivid than the world they inhabit. Fans of the OTORI series looking for a similar book will not find what they are looking for, but perhaps those who are willing to persevere with a dense historical cast and a flimsy plot will.

Published in 2010. Japan, 1857. For centuries, Japan has been on its own; isolated by choice from the rest of the world. But the Western powers are now at its shores, demanding to be let in; the government is crumbling, and revolution is building. The age of the samurai is ending and in its place a new Japan will be born. A young woman is readying herself for marriage in this, the most tumultuous period of her nation’s history. The daughter of a doctor, Tsuru has been working alongside him and learning the ways of medicine all her life. When her father allows her to marry the man she loves, a fellow doctor, she believes her life will be all she’s dreamed it could be: happily married, working amongst men as an equal. But Japanese society does not work this way. The men of the times – boys she’s known since childhood – are determined to expel the foreigners, using violence and whatever else they need to make their message heard. The women are expected to be hidden at home, or behind the paper walls of the tea houses. Tsuru is far too able to accept this, and she is drawn into a shadowy world of subversion, political intrigue, and a dangerous love. In time, she is working on the battlefields, alongside men, to care for the wounded. Blossoms and Shadows is a compelling tale of love and war, women and men, and the rise of modern Japan. It shines a brilliant light on a time in history that few have known about until now, though the change it brought continues to ripple around the world.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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One comment

  1. As you said, two very big ideas. I love the idea of a woman challenging the mores of her culture, and this period in Japanese history was fascinating. Hard to do either one justice in one book, I think.

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