Musashi is the tale of the eponymous historical figure’s early life, beginning with the aftermath of the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. This was the tail end of the Warring States period in Japan, which saw the Ashikaga shogunate totter and fall beneath the widespread warfare between daimyo (powerful noblemen). Sekigahara saw the forces of two of these, the Houses of Tokugawa and Toyotomi, clash. Tokugawa won and claimed supremacy, although the remnant forces of Toyotomi holed up at Osaka and dreamt of returning to glory.
In this world, there were many masterless samurai, called ronin, and Musashi was one of them. Early on he’s little more than a strong and energetic fighter, but over the course of the book he dedicates himself to the Way of the Sword and mastering himself. His wandering takes him from place to place, and the book’s POV sometimes switches to other significant characters, such as Matahachi (his comrade-in-arms at Sekigahara), and Otsu (a childhood friend from the same village). Various places are visited, including Kyoto, Osaka, and the rapidly expanding city of Edo. Coupled with smaller villages, this presents the reader with an interesting cultural backdrop including schools of swordsmanship, pleasure houses, and temples.
The book is large at 970 pages, but I read it faster than most things because I found the plot intriguing and the writing style easy to read. It perhaps also helped that the world of early 17th century Japan was interesting to read about.
The cast is not as large as might be expected of such a big book, but the author’s style of drawing together and then dispersing clusters of characters, interweaving their own personal stories so that every character has different relationships with one another was very well done. It led to natural conflicts, allies of convenience, and explains how Musashi, despite doing his best to act honourably, managed to accrue quite a number of enemies over the years.
Other characters are three-dimensional, not merely reacting to Musashi’s own doings as background to his tale, but striving to achieve their own goals, whether that’s revenge or achieving success for oneself.
I tried to think of downsides, but it wasn’t especially easy. The size may put some people off. There is occasional sexual content but it’s the haziest of hazy watercolours you can imagine. Violence is a feature, of course, but far less frequent or visceral than in, say, Outlaws of the Marsh.
It’s a very enjoyable book, in short.