Book Review: The Gilded Fan by Christina Courtenay

The Gilded Fan by Christina Courtenay

I should begin this review by being honest – I was asked to review this book and it came with free chocolate. However, despite the freebies, I have tried to read this book objectively. Actually, I was thrilled when Choc Lit contacted me to tell me about The Gilded Fan by Christina Courtenay, because I love historical romance novels set in Japan and this book seemed like it would be right up my street.

The Gilded Fan begins in Japan at the end of 1640, which was a particularly interesting time in Japanese history. After a period of encouraging foreign trade, and allowing foreigners to reside in Japan, the Tokugawa shogunate had become suspicious of outsiders. A lot of the problems seemed to centre around religion, and it was usually assumed that foreigners were Christians. By 1612, the shogun’s retainers and residents of Tokugawa lands had been ordered to forswear Christianity. In 1616 foreign trade to Nagasaki and Hirado (an island northwest of Kyushu, which was home to William Adams until he died there in 1620) was restricted. Many missionaries and converts were executed in 1622, the Spanish were expelled in 1624, and thousands of Christians were executed in 1629. Finally, the Closed Country Edict of 1635 (Sakoku Edict / Sakoku-rei / 鎖国令) prohibited any Japanese from travelling outside Japan or, if someone left, from ever returning. In 1636 the Dutch were restricted to Dejima, a small artificial island in Nagasaki’s harbour. By 1641, foreign contacts were limited by the policy of sakoku (鎖国) to Nagasaki, and by the 1660s, Christianity was almost completely eradicated in Japan. The Sakoku policy remained in effect until 1853 with the arrival of the Black Ships of Commodore Matthew Perry and the opening of Japan to Western trade. It was still illegal to leave Japan until the Meiji Restoration (明治維新) in 1868. During this period, only China, the Dutch East India Company and, for a short period, the English, were allowed to visit Japan. Visits were allowed for commercial purposes only, and they were restricted to Dejima port. Any other Europeans who made their way to Japan would have been put to death without trial.

And so the story begins, in Japan in 1640, with Midori Kumashiro attending the funeral of her mother – Hannah. As unlikely as it might sound at that time in Japan, Midori was born to a British mother and Japanese father, Taro Kumashiro, who was a powerful daimyo (大名) or ‘territorial lord’. By 1641, Midori has realised that she must leave Japan. Despite being half Japanese, and having been brought up with Shinto beliefs rather than Christian, to everyone around her she is a gaijin (foreigner), and it’s likely she will be killed if she stays in Japan.

Midori decides to flee to England, her mother’s home, and seeks passage on a Dutch ship leaving from Dejima, captained by Nico Noordholt. Nico’s not too keen on the idea of having a beautiful female passenger travelling on his ship with only the ship’s male crew for company, but when he learns that Midori’s life is in danger, how can he refuse her?

Nico and Midori form an unlikely friendship during their long travels, and both try to ignore their instant attraction for one another. However, against Nico’s better judgement, he offers to spend time with Midori, teaching her the ways of Christianity. He’s hardly a strong believer himself, but he knows that once she arrives in England she will have to follow Christian teachings. Ironically, it’s a crime to be a Christian in Japan, and a crime not to be in England.

But when Midori finally arrives in England in 1642, after a brief stop in Holland, she finds a little more than she bargained for. Her family in Plymouth are Puritans with very strict Christian beliefs, a civil war is brewing, and Nico has been keeping a very important secret from her.

The first thing to say about The Gilded Fan is that you probably shouldn’t rely on it completely for historical accuracy. That being said, the majority of the historical references in the book are true, and you can certainly get a feel for the time period it is set in. Personally, I knew nothing about the First English Civil War (1642 – 1646), and feel like I learnt something about my own country’s history, as well as firming up my knowledge of Japanese history.

But we don’t necessarily read historical romance for the history, do we? The Gilded Fan is an incredibly readable book. I’m sure Choc Lit would like it if I compared reading this book to eating a box of chocolates – before you know it, the first layer is all gone and just can’t stop popping another one into your mouth. Some are sweet, some more bitter, but all delicious. The characters, too, were wonderful. Once I got over my initial feeling of ‘surely a foreign woman wouldn’t have had a child with a daimyo’, I was able to really get into the characters and their stories, and absolutely loved the relationship which formed between Nico and Midori.

All of Choc Lit’s books include the hero’s point of view as well as the heroine’s, which is a nice touch, and gives the book a more well-rounded feel. Had the story been told only from Midori’s perspective, I don’t think it would have been as gripping. Nico is a stubborn, slightly pig-headed man at times, but I’m pretty sure if I had been in Midori’s situation I would have fallen for his charms too. Courtenay has a great way of describing characters that I found very visual, and I was able to build up very clear images of the characters while I was reading the book. Here are a couple of short extracts from Midori and Nico’s first meeting…

Suddenly he forgot everything else as he gazed into quite the most perfect face he had ever seen, In fact, it was so exquisite that for a moment he wondered if she was actually real. Large, slightly almond-shaped eyes, fringed with dark lashes, under perfectly arched brows. A small, tip-tilted nose, high cheek-bones and a mouth just the right shape and size, all set in a heart-shaped face with flawless, porcelain skin. The woman may be dressed in what appeared to be men’s clothing, but she was female in every other way. Soft curves were hinted at by the silk of her robe and her backside was delineated by the strange, skirt-like breeches. Thick shining tresses of hair cascaded down to her knees, tied back loosely with a ribbon.

The voice belonged to a man who was much taller than the others, broad-shouldered and not quite as ill-kempt. He seemed to have made an effort to tame his beard by clipping it very close to his skin and had tied his hair into a short tail to keep it tidy. It was of a colour she’d never seen before, like shiny but tarnished gold, and it swept back from what her mother had called a widow’s peak. Midori found it impossible to stop staring at him. His beard and eyebrows were darker and showed off the sharp planes of his face. Deep-set eyes, a determined jaw and straight nose with a slight bump in the middle gave him character. Although he was wearing the same type of baggy knee-length breeches as his compatriots, he had a clean Japanese belted jacket on top.

If you need a bit of romance in your life – well, it is Valentine’s Day next week – and if you love stories with a Japanese flavour, I’d highly recommend checking out The Gilded Fan. It’s a brilliant story, with relatable and interesting characters, and the perfect thing to warm up these chilly nights. I guess one of the marks of a good book is if you find yourself wanting more, and with The Gilded Fan I most certainly did. In fact, so much so that I found myself a copy of Christina Coutenay’s The Scarlet Kimono, the prequel to The Gilded Fan, which tells the story of Hannah, Midori’s mother, and her journey to Japan. Watch this space for another review!

The Scarlet Kimono by Christina Courtenay

About Christina Courtenay, author of The Gilded Fan

Christina lives in London and is married with two children. Although born in England she has a Swedish mother and was brought up in Sweden. In her teens, the family moved to Japan where she had the opportunity to travel extensively in the Far East. In 2011 Christina’s debut, Trade Winds was short listed for the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Pure Passion Award of Best Historical Fiction. Her second novel, The Scarlet Kimono, won the Big Red Reads Best Historical Fiction Award. In 2012 Highland Storms won the Best Historical Romantic Novel of the year award and her fourth novel, The Silent Touch of Shadows, won the Best Historical Read Award from the Festival of Romance. New England Rocks, to be released in August 2013, is Christina’s Young Adult debut novel.

About Choc Lit…

Choc Lit is an independent publisher creating a delicious selection of fiction, where heroes are like chocolate – irresistible! Choc Lit novels are selected by genuine readers, and they only publish the stories their Choc Lit Tasting Panel want to see in print. Find out more at: www.choc-lit.co.uk.

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