Kamikaze: A Novel of the Mongol Invasions of Japan
Outskirts Press (2019)
Reviewed by Megan Weiss for Reader Views (10/2020)
Jeanne Blanchet’s “Kamikaze: A Novel of the Mongol Invasions of Japan” is a story set during the reign of Mongol overlord Kublai Khan. A grandson to the famed Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan worked his way up from being the younger son of Genghis’ fourth son to his grandfather’s heir and successor. During the 13th Century, the Mongols had overtaken large swaths of the world, including China and Korea. Japan, a little island nation to their West, seemed to be the last holdout, and Kublai Khan wanted it. He was convinced that their resources, namely gold, and their fierce, honorable samurais would add considerable wealth and power to his growing empire; and was sure that such a small, ‘uncivilized’ nation would be no match for the Mongol army. Amidst the Mongol attempt at capturing Japan, however, Kublai Khan would come to realize that Japan’s outward appearance was deceiving.
Blanchet introduces readers to a number of important Japanese characters over the course of the novel. In fact, “Kamikaze: A Novel of the Mongol Invasions of Japan” opens by using Japan as the first setting. Here we meet Tokiyori, who we meet as a young boy who witnesses his father, the Regent of the Kamakura Shogunate, decapitate an assassin that was discovered in their home one night. Instructed by his father on that night to always promote honor and courage among the samurais and to be on the lookout for sneaky cowards when, one day, Tokiyori would take over as Regent himself, Tokiyori is responsible for making vital decisions during the invasion decades later. We also meet Atsuko, the daughter of an aristocrat and Ichiro, the son of a renowned swordsmith. Atsuko and Ichiro meet as children and gradually fall deeply in love with each other. As they come to adulthood, however, their different stations in society become an obstacle for their love, as Atsuko is betrothed to a powerful samurai and Ichiro goes on to take over his father’s sword making business.
One of the most blatant themes in Blanchet’s book can be interpreted as this: that honor, love, and passion can and should win out over sheer power, greed, and cruelty. There is also the familiar scene of watching as an underdog nation overcomes the invasion and dominance of another in order to come out on the other side stronger than ever, despite the sufferings experienced during the Mongol attacks. Love also plays a strong role in the book and adds a layer of compassion to the story that helps to tug at the hearts of readers.
This is the third historical novel of Blanchet’s that I have read, and she continues to impress with her ability to weave in thorough, extensive historical research and narratives in with fictional characters. “Kamikaze: A Novel of the Mongol Invasions of Japan” could have easily been written as a straight history, but I think that by twisting it just slightly so as to make it a work of fiction, Blanchet is able to appeal to a wider range of readers. Mongol history is wide-ranging and there are a lot of important figures, places and conflicts that make up the whole picture. It could be a lot for some readers who aren’t used to reading history to take in, but the interspersed dialogue and exposition helps to simplify the information in a way that makes it less tedious for more general readers. I would say, however, that there are some pretty graphic images in depicting some of the more violent scenes. While this certainly adds to the authenticity of the book, it might not be the best choice of reading material for younger readers or those who aren’t a fan of scenes that are heavy with blood.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the Mongol Invasions of Japan by way of Blanchet’s book. The Mongols are a group I have always been interested in, but they have been covered by so many different historians and analyzed at so many different angles that it can be hard to decide where to start. I’d recently read Blanchet’s prior book about Genghis Khan’s story, so it was nice to be able to pick up where that left off and continue with Kublai Khan’s, as well. Fiction and history fit so well together, and I wish more authors would take advantage of this as a literary strategy. I think it’s a great way to interest more people in the history of the world, and also makes for some really thrilling, engaging reading!