Between 1467 – 1615, the Sengoku Era (literally ‘Warring States Era’) was a period of near-constant civil war. The military dictatorship of Japan – the shogunate – was in a weakened state and unable to prevent local wars from breaking out between the daimyo – the feudal lords that ruled the provinces – which spread like wildfire. The Emperor, long reduced to a mere figurehead, was also powerless to stop the carnage, but that didn’t prevent the Imperial Court from supporting one side against another.
General Motohide is a fictional daimyo lord, but he could be a carbon copy of one of the many men who commanded huge armies in Sengoku Era Japan. The novel opens with Motohide defeating his brother, who was supported by the Emperor, and unintentionally opening up a Pandora’s Box. Motohide realizes that although he has pledged submission to the Emperor, it is only a matter of time before he is removed. After all, the Imperial Court supported his brother, not him.
Egged on by his power-hungry wife, Motohide sends an assassin to Kyoto, the Imperial Capital, to eliminate the Emperor and any future threat to him and his lineage. The man hired is a nameless samurai, accompanied by his adopted daughter, simply known as ‘the girl.’ Mysterious and laconic, the samurai is almost a symbol rather than a character, embodying Japan’s warrior class as well as the zeitgeist of the Sengoku Era. However, we get glimpses into his psyche, namely a slavish devotion to duty. We also learn that despite his fighting prowess, he is seriously unhealthy, but is more concerned with the dreaded thought that might die before completing his mission.
Unfortunately for the samurai, his assassination attempt ends in failure, and is captured by the Imperial Guard. Although his crime is unforgivable and befitting the most gruesome of executions, the Emperor realizes that Motohide is behind it all and that the samurai could be a useful weapon. Leveraging the girl, the Emperor enlists the samurai into a suicide mission against General Motohide, secure in his impregnable fortress on the other side of Japan.
Realizing he cannot do it alone, the samurai is allowed to recruit several convicts, all former soldiers under sentence of death, to join him in exchange for commuted sentences. The girl is also released and allowed to accompany them, given that the samurai’s word of honor is actually enough of a guarantee that he will complete his mission faithfully. The team travels through war-torn Japan, riddled with bandits and danger.
They also must avoid Commander Raku, a soldier loyal to General Motohide, who is stationed in Kyoto at the beginning of the novel. Using bribery and wit, Raku figures out that the Emperor has ordered Motohide’s assassination, and rushes desperately to warn his lord. Raku and his men eventually encounter the samurai, with gruesome results.
The last part of the novel resembles a heist, with each member of the samurai’s team using their own skill to infiltrate General Motohide’s fortress. Winter Raven utilizes multiple POVs, characters, subplots, and historical detail to craft an excellent thriller.
Adam Baker Interview
1) What inspired you to write the book?
I used to practise karate at a very traditional dojo. No punch bags, no trophies, no equipment of any kind. Simply an empty room, a big mat and an instructor demanding elaborate etiquette and absolute commitment. I hurt my back and had to quit, an event which, paradoxically, increased my interest in bushido as I was forced to confront the inability of frail humans to live up to the samurai ideal. A person can drill themselves to be a perfect warrior, but sooner or later their body will let them down. It’s a fascinating predicament and one which has near-universal resonance. Aging. Mortality. Big dreams slamming up against personal limitations.
2) What research did you do before writing?
I read about fifty books. Maybe I should have visited Japan but the period in which the novels are set (1500s) is a time of romance and myth. It’s an idea as much as a place, and one won’t encounter it walking round modern Tokyo. It would be like a Japanese person arriving at Heathrow and asking a taxi driver to take them to Camelot.
3) The samurai and the girl do not have names (until the very end, at least for one of them). Was there a reason you chose not to name them?
Japanese naming conventions are difficult for western readers to grasp. If you read The Tale of Genji, the 11th century classic, you have to keep a companion volume close at hand because the characters choose new names each time they shift roles in the Imperial court. Very hard to keep track. I’ve done my best to keep it simple.
4) Was there a real-life equivalent of General Motohide or a historical figure who inspired him?
Japan spent the 1500s wracked by civil war, province battling province, until Tokugawa Ieyasu subdued them and founded the Tokugawa Shogunate. Motohide is one of his precursors, a warlord of unlimited ambition.
5) Did the Imperial Court in Kyoto send assassins to murder daimyo lords during the Sengoku Era?
How would we know? Every historical period has two narratives; the official chronicle, and the shadow history, the back channels and black ops that are the true engines of power.
Actually, there are pretty good indications that espionage and assassination were standard tools of statecraft. The rigid honour codes of the samurai were largely invented during the Edo period to cement loyalty to the Emperor (The Hagakure, the most famous of the samurai training documents was written in the 1700s, long after the adoption of gunpowder had transformed the Japanese military. It wasn’t so much a record of the samurai’s chivalric code, as it was a retrospective invention of a austere warrior ethic that hadn’t truly existed during the age of the warring states. Just as the Victorians (eg novelists like Walter Scott) fabricated a romanticised version of the middle ages populated by knights in shining armour, both Japanese and western historians have invented an impossibly noble version of the samurai which masks a bloody, back-stabbing reality. (Check out Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushido in Modern Japan by Oleg Benesch.)
If you want direct evidence of the shenanigans that took place in early Japanese history, it’s worth investigating the shinobi (aka ninjas) who were a very real cadre of military operatives from a mountainous region of central Honshu known as the Forty Eight Waterfalls. A ninja master called Natori Masatake tried to sell the services of the shinobi to the Tokugawa Shogunate in the late 1600s by writing a document known as the Shōninki, a manual which explains in detail the skills his mercenaries had to offer. The manuscript is held at the State Library in Tokyo and details lock-picking, reconnaissance and espionage training remarkably similar to modern day special forces.
6) Commander Raku goes through some particularly grisly sufferings. Was there any reason you put the character through these ordeals?
7) Were there any plot elements or characters that were cut out of the final manuscript?
I flirted with the idea of having a hero of western origin be our proxy, a person who wouldn’t understand Japan and would have to have every aspect explained to him. But in the end I decided to keep the story purely Japanese.
8) Who is your favorite character and why?
The heroine. Everyone loves a plucky underdog.
9) Given the foreign characters and the Sengoku Era being a relatively unknown time in history (in the West at least) as it difficult to find a publisher for Winter Raven?
Yes. Given the number of novels set in Roman, Viking and Napoleonic times I was surprised how reluctant publishers were to embrace the samurai era.
10) What are you working on currently?
Planning samurai novel number three.
US readers can order Winter Raven on the American Amazon page.
UK readers can order Winter Raven on the British Amazon page.
Canadian readers can order the book on the Canadian Amazon page.
Australian readers can order it from the Australian Amazon page.