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Child of Vengeance: A Novel Hardcover – March 12, 2013

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Amazon Exclusive: The Code of the Samurai
What did it mean to be samurai?

Over the centuries they were prevalent in Japan, the concept was quite open to interpretation. Malleable may be too strong a word, for there were many constants--a stoic and reserved sword-bearing man who valued the honor of his name and clan above all--and yet change was undeniable. When the samurai began to emerge as a dominant class in the eleventh and twelfth centuries they were simply those who were the best at hitting things with bow or sword, and yet by the end of their era in the mid 1800s many could be fairly described as little more than heavily armed bureaucrats.

The period this novel depicts happens to be a time of great upheaval: the transitory years as samurai society evolved from a meritocratic order of warriors into a caste that one was either born into or forbidden. The warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who effectively ruled Japan from 1585 to his death in 1598, was the great instigator of this process, starting off by forbidding any non-samurai to bear weapons early in his reign. Though it would be a few decades later that codified law would be put in place by the Tokugawa Shogunate, it was Toyotomi’s decree that truly began the separation of the populace into rigid strata of samurai, peasant, artisan, merchant, and lowest of all the corpse-handlers.

The great and unavoidable irony of course is that Toyotomi was himself born a peasant, and tried a number of vocations in his life before he enrolled as a soldier and discovered his aptitude for war, clawing his way upwards through the ranks to the highest position of all. Though lineage had always been given prestige, by the decree of a commoner it now became everything, much to the carefully hidden disgust of a lot of his contemporaries and descendents.

Though this kind of radical alteration tended to happen in sporadic violent bursts of activity and incident rather than a steady and continual progression, it was nevertheless the case that different ideals of ‘samurai-hood’ waxed and waned from decade to decade, even from city to city. Attitudes towards dress, towards the spiritual or practical importance of the sword, towards art - some Lords encouraged their samurai to study poetry because they thought the practice civilizing, whereas others rejected it as a feminine distraction – all varied with time and location.

The protagonist of Child of Vengeance is the man who would come to be known as Musashi Miyamoto, the greatest samurai ever to grace this earth. His father, Munisai Shinmen, was a legendary samurai in his own right. The father’s belief, espoused throughout the novel, could be taken as a very conservative, ‘traditional’ archetype which suggests that the entire point of samurai is to serve unto the death (which incidentally could be commanded by their Lord at any time).In this way, death proved the samurai’s conviction and strength of spirit. Much of this is illustrated in one of the most important works on samurai culture entitled Hagakure (loosely: Hidden by Leaves), a collection of thoughts by Tsunetomo Yamamoto that was first published around 1716. Yamamoto was a samurai who had been forbidden to follow his Lord into death (a sometimes-observed traditional practice), something he was deeply troubled by. He spent his last years musing on what the ‘correct’ course for a samurai should have been. In true Japanese fashion he refrains from making a definite conclusion, but the general implication is that to live Lordless was nothing, to die for one divine, and to live as though that death had already been achieved the key to a higher ‘purity’. Unlike his father, Musashi Miyamoto was almost diametrically opposed to this. He spent most of his life wandering Japan without a Lord, searching for enlightenment and honing what would come to be a legendary skill with his swords. Along the way he would enrage as many people as he inspired. The quote that opens this novel, taken from his collection of thoughts on strategy and bearing in life, Go Rin No Sho (The Book of Five Rings) illustrates his stance quite succinctly:

“Many people claim that the resolute acceptance of death is the way of the samurai. However, these people are wrong; warriors have no monopoly on this virtue. Monks, women and peasants too can face death bravely. No; the true distinction of a samurai lies in overcoming other men and bringing glory to himself.”

--Musashi Miyamoto,Go Rin No Sho (The Book of Five Rings), 1645

Though Musashi was unafraid of death he did not long for it, instead yearning to be a master of all things for and by himself.

There were universal beliefs though, and one of the utmost and most relevant to this novel was that of vengeance. If someone wronged you or someone you were bound to by blood or oath it was simply inconceivable for a samurai not to pursue an equal or worse revenge. An interesting theory suggests that (prior to its prohibition by law) Christianity did not flourish in Japan as it did in other Asian countries visited by missionaries because the samurai could neither understand nor respect a God that preached forgiveness.

Grudges and slights were so important they were passed down over generations; after the battle of Sekigahara that ends the novel the defeated Mori clan would ritualistically open its subsequent annual gatherings of elders with some variation of: “Has the time come to avenge ourselves upon the Tokugawa?” This they did for over two hundred and fifty years, the answer always being no, until eventually the dynastic Shogunate showed signs of weakness. Then the ancestors of the men who had actually lost the battle sprang into action and became one of the foremost agitators in the sequence of events that eventually brought down the Tokugawa.

In doing so though, of course, they also brought about the end of the era of the samurai--the new post-Tokugawa of Japan of the 1860s would model itself on European democracies, and one of the first things to go was the right to wear swords. In itself this, I think, is a fine illustration of the samurai: devoutly loyal, even at the cost of their own destruction.

So, what did it mean to be samurai? Perhaps it is best to think of the idea of it as a rock that has sat in a garden of carefully raked sand through centuries; though it is the same rock, different men have seen it in different lights from different angles. Willingly or unwillingly the men all die; the rock endures.

Furthermore, I feel the most pertinent fact that often gets forgotten when one thinks of bygone eras and castes is that regardless of which ideals were venerated at whichever time - beneath it all lay a human being. Of the millions of people to ever be called samurai, their ability or readiness to live up to whatever standards were set before them was determined entirely by themselves.

From Booklist

This coming-of-age biographical novel features the famous seventeenth-century samurai warrior-poet Musashi Miyamoto, who created the double sword fighting method kenjutsu. Readers unfamiliar with Japanese history initially may feel lost in this detailed and measured account of the samurai’s life and the strict traditions surrounding family and personal honor. Kirk does, however, provide backstory in the form of vivid explanatory drama—a child committing seppuku (hara-kiri), a temple burning, and several brutal acts of vengeance. Young Bennosuke declares his samurai name, Miyamoto, at the Battle of Sekigahara (1600), which is described in tense and gruesome detail. The characters, even the young Bennosuke, aren’t particularly likable in conventional terms, but Kirk’s spare portrayal of the way of life of the samurai, whose duty it is to protect, defend, and avenge and for whom dying is nothing and winning is all, proves remarkably compelling. Those who enjoyed James Clavell’s Shogun (1975) or who read the Sano Ichiro mysteries by Laura Joh Rowlands will find much to ponder in this starkly realistic and bleak portrait of Bushido, the way of the samurai warrior. --Jen Baker
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday (March 12, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385536631
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385536639
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,158,417 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By W. Sanders VINE VOICE on February 16, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Some years ago I read Musashi Miyamoto's 'The Book of Five Rings' (Go Rin No Sho) and to be frank, I was underwhelmed. Books like 'The Art of War' and even 'The Prince,' contain a good deal of strategic wisdom, but with 'Five Rings' all I found was observations of what seemed self-obvious. The book meanders through observations like the following:
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'Someone once said "Immature strategy is the cause of grief". That was a true saying.' (From Go Rin No Sho).
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Okay, that sounds true enough, but hardly earth-shattering news. However, reading the book led me to find out more about Musashi and his life. So when 'Child of Vengeance' became available, I read it with great interest. The author, David Kirk, spins a terrific story interwoven with solid history and creativity allowed in an historical novel. While historical documents, such as they are, tell us something about Musashi, much of his life is shrouded in mystery and sparks of mysticism. He is definitely not your average samurai warrior, either in his training or his accomplishments.

Child of Vengeance centers on Musashi's life between the ages of 13 to 16, and while this may seem to be hardly enough to fill a couple of pages in most people's lives, for Musashi ( or Bennosuke as he is called through most of the book) it crowds the 320+ pages of Kirk's work. It takes place from about 1597 to 1600. During that time of Japanese history samurai warriors and codes of honor were strongly established, but at the same time shattered at the battle of Seki ga Hara, where treachery won the day; not honor. However, it did establish the Tokugawa Shogunate and a way of life for the next couple of hundred years.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Reader from Washington, DC VINE VOICE on March 5, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Musashi Miyamoto is a lost teen in 17th century Japan. Abandoned by his samurai father, he lives with his uncle, a temple priest, puzzling over the many mysteries surrounding the death of his mother and the disappearance of his father. He must make a choice -- will he become a ruthless samurai like his missing father or a monk like his uncle? Will he choose a peaceful life as a scholar-priest or pick up two swords and avenge his father's dishonor?

This fascinating and detailed novel is based on a true story -- Miyamoto became a great warrior, artist and writer in 17th century Japan. The historical facts about Miyamoto's adolescence are murky and conflicting, but first-time novelist David Kirk weaves an impressive story of his young adulthood, featuring samurai training, temple service, blood feuds, war, adventures, and vengeance.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By John B. Goode TOP 100 REVIEWER on April 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Beautifully written. The prologue, the first 2 pages, kind of threw me as it was descriptive and dry. It actually put me off reading this book a couple of times until I got past it. However, once I got into Chapter one into the part where the characters started appearing it absolutely absorbed me. And that's because the author has a way with putting life into his characters. By the end of Chapter two I was deep in feudal Japan.

It appears by the absence of other works on Amazon that David Kirk is a debut author, but his writing is very good. The blurb on the back notes that he is a Japanese historian living in Japan. He captures the essence of the Samurai, feudal Japan, and more importantly the essence of the characters in his book. In the first chapter, I was standing there on the hill with Munisai, Lord Shinmen, Ueno and Lord Kenno waiting for Sepukku, knowing it was going to happen, not wanting to see it, but unable to turn away either. In the next instance, I was in the palanquin next to Munisai with the Nakatas. The menace came off Hayato so strong that even I could feel it and I was glad to leave the palanquin with Munisai before anything worse could happen. That's when you know the book is good, when the book puts you in the action and you feel like you're right there feeling what the characters feel.

This is a true epic, based loosely on the historical character Miyamoto Musashi. This book at 322 pages is if anything a little too short. I'm completely wowed by it. I wanted to put it down at times but couldn't. What happens next? I'm hoping for more. Anyone interested in feudal Japan, Samurai or good historical fiction should definitely get this book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Janet Perry VINE VOICE on February 7, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The Book of Five Rings remains a classic of martial philosophy and is the ultimate guide to the Samurai way of life. However little is known of the early life of its author Miyamoto beyond the barest facts.

Kirk takes these facts and weaves an exciting and bloody tale. Those familiar with samurai or Miyamoto from movies won't be surprised at this. The story Kirk weaves from the facts of the hero's life is an exciting one. The author weaves the facts together into something that makes a coherent whole.

In this he succeeds admirably. The story moves along so quickly I was 2/3 of the way through before I knew it. It's easily s exciting as any samurai movie I've seen. Miyamoto's youth was spent during exciting and troubled times in Japan but the underlying themes of vengeance, finding yourself, and the Samurai way of life, give the tale a timeless feel.

Kirk's writing is amazing. He has a great eye for detail and description which made even the most violent part of the book almost lyrical in feel. But what's most interesting to me is how well he understands the minds of the Samurai of this period. Thta' hard for Westerners to grasp, but he does.

I'm looking forward to more of his books.
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