I was delighted to welcome Lesley Downer as my guest last November as part of the blog tour to launch The Shogun’s Queen in hardback and for kindle (you can read the interview again here). And I’m equally delighted to welcome her back – The Shogun’s Queen was published in paperback yesterday (27th July) by Corgi, and Lesley’s on tour again.
I think she’s forgiven me for not reading and reviewing her books – there are others on the tour who will do it so much better – but I’m always fascinated by Lesley’s insights on Japan. It’s a destination I haven’t yet visited, but her enthusiasm has ensured that it’s firmly on my bucket list. The book details follow, but first let me introduce you to author Lesley Downer…
Hello, Anne. Thank you for allowing me to post on your blog today! I greatly appreciate it. I’d like to tell you and your readers a little about The Shogun’s Queen and its setting – the once great city of Edo, now known as Tokyo.
Tokyo is one of the most thrilling cities on earth. It’s like stepping out of a time machine into the future, all gleaming skyscrapers, with not a single piece of rubbish or an unwashed car on view. You walk down broad streets humming with people, between the most extraordinary glass and steel creations. It’s a bit of a temple to modern architecture. Most of the world’s great architects have designed eye-popping buildings here.
But then you turn a corner and find yourself on a narrow lane with a little shrine with two stone foxes outside or a huge temple where pilgrims crowd to ring the giant bell and waft incense smoke over themselves. Everywhere you go are traces of the city that was there before it was Tokyo, when it was the shogun (military ruler)’s capital, Edo. And the most beguiling thing is that there’s enough left still that with a little imagination you can spirit yourself back there.
At the time of The Shogun’s Queen, in the mid nineteenth century, Edo was the largest city on earth. It was a beautiful place, crisscrossed with streams and canals lined with willow trees, with boats and barges shuttling up and down. Westerners who visited described it as the Venice of the East.
Right at the city’s heart, towering over streets crammed with small wooden houses, were the massive white battlements of Edo Castle with its moat winding round and round like a snail shell and the broad river Sumida running along one side. Deep inside was the Women’s Palace, a sort of harem where three thousand women lived and only one man could enter – the shogun. And that was where the heroine of my story, Princess Atsu, lived out her days.
At first sight the canals have disappeared. Where they once ran are now traffic-filled highways. But if you ramble around on foot or by bicycle, you’ll find the occasional mossy-banked canal, lined with ramshackle old houses overgrown with ivy.
In Japan the most precious things are hidden from view. You have to search to find them.
Away from the shops and crowds there are other discoveries, quiet neighbourhoods where you walk through geisha districts, past closed doors from behind which you can pick out the faint strumming of shamisens (lutes) and sounds of singing. If you know what to look for you might even see a geisha, flitting by demurely on satin sandals.
As for Edo Castle, it long since burnt down after a bitter civil war which is the background to my novel. Where the Women’s Palace once stood is now the Imperial Palace East Gardens, an endless expanse of smooth green lawn.
I crossed the moat, went through the Great Gate. As I paced out the area, marvelling at the size of the place, I tried to imagine the palace that had once filled the entire area with its white walls, dove grey roofs and delicate wooden walkways. I could almost smell the perfumes, hear the swish of kimonos, the soft voices and laughter.
When I first came across Princess Atsu’s story my heart was touched by her courage, her sadness, her determination to do the right thing even though it meant giving up the man she loved. She played a major part in the great events that were transforming Japan. But because she was a woman and lived hidden away in the palace, few people ever heard her story. I wanted to use all my knowledge and love of Japan to conjure her up, bring her back to life. And that’s what The Shogun’s Queen is all about.
Lesley, thank you so much for such a lovely post! Let’s take a closer look at the book:
The year is 1853, and a young Japanese girl’s world is about to be turned upside down.
When black ships carrying barbarians arrive on the shores of Japan, the Satsuma clan’s way of life is threatened. But it’s not just the samurai who must come together to fight: the beautiful, headstrong Okatsu is also given a new destiny by her feudal lord – to save the realm.
Armed only with a new name, Princess Atsu, as she is now known, journeys to the women’s palace of Edo Castle, a place so secret it cannot be marked on any map. Behind the palace’s immaculate façade, amid rumours of murder and whispers of ghosts, Atsu must uncover the secret of the man whose fate, it seems, is irrevocably linked to hers – the shogun himself – if she is to rescue her people…
(Now available through on-line bookshops and major high street retailers)
About the author
Lesley Downer first went to Japan more than thirty years ago and her life has revolved around Japan ever since. She is the author of many books on Japan, including Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World, Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha who Seduced the West and the first three in The Shogun Quartet, a quartet of novels: The Last Concubine, The Courtesan and the Samurai and The Samurai’s Daughter. The Shogun’s Queen, is a prequel, chronologically the first in the quartet, and begins at the moment when Black Ships are sighted off the coast of Japan.