Lynn: I shouldn’t begin a review with a left-handed compliment, but the real truth is that I don’t think that I would have ever picked up Samurai Rising: the Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune (2016) if I didn’t love Pamela Turner’s writing. If I’m being totally honest, the violent, head-chopping warrior culture of the Samurai period is really not something I enjoy reading about. Still, many of our teens are fascinated by the subject—and it was Pam Turner!—so I sighed heavily and started reading. I’m here to tell you that I still don’t want to read anything else about the subject, but I quite honestly could not put this book down. It was that compelling.
This is a truly epic tale with a surfeit of gory violence, family rivalries, brutal betrayals, and heroic feats. It is also a technicolor-vivid history lesson that skillfully and clearly conveys an intensely complicated culture and a tragic historical period that had a lasting impact on an entire country.
Cindy: My middle school boys want to read anything with samurai in the title. They respond well to my booktalk of Samurai Shortstop (2006), a YA novel by Alan Gratz, set at the turn of the 19th century just as the samurai culture is being outlawed, that opens with a boy watching his uncle perform seppuku. Turner gives us the historical background to the ritual, disemboweling suicides that would become samurai tradition. Samurai Rising would make a perfect nonfiction pairing with Gratz’s fictional account.
In addition to the humor that Turner inserts when the reader needs it most, she helpfully provides subtle clues and more substantive remarks to alert the reader to what is known to be historically documented fact and what is based on legends that surround this renowned samurai warrior. Explanations like, “We know that one of Yoshitsune’s wives joined him in exile. . . We don’t know which wife. . . Nor is it known how Yoshitsune’s wife and child evaded Yoritomo and reached Hiraizumi,” help readers to discern fact from assumption. The research is well-documented in extensive Chapter Notes. These include the expected source citations for quotes as well as “historical details, clarifications, and bits that [Turner] think[s] are fascinating but couldn’t fit into the main narrative.” The end matter includes helpful author’s notes, time lines, a glossary, and an index. Gareth Hinds’ brush and ink chapter illustrations add to the drama. I had to chuckle when I saw this caveat on his illustrator web page for this book: