Tanaka prepared for a life as a samurai warrior. But his world changed when Japan’s feudal system was abolished by the Emperor. Now, he must find a new vocation. Disillusioned with fighting and violence, he travels alone, going north to the island of Hokkaido. Many other samurai wander through the country and are known as ronin. Some have forsaken their honorable way to prey on the less fortunate.
Hanako Shimizu experienced first-hand the devastation caused by these disreputable wanderers. The previous winter, they raided her farm and killed her husband. Now, she needs to rebuild but has no money and no prospects — except for the dubious intentions of the town merchant.
When Hiro, tired of his wandering, encounters Hanako in the market, arguing with the merchant, he poses as her late husband’s cousin then offers to help her on the farm in exchange for a place to stay. Working on the land, Hiro finally finds the peace he has been seeking. But the reappearance of the rogue ronin, led by an unscrupulous leader from Hiro’s past, forces him to take up his swords again. But now, the stakes are higher.
‘But now the stakes are higher’.This sentence is misleading because this story has no stakes- and no real conflict. The Samurai’s Garden is warm, pleasant fluff; a cinderella story where a knight in shining armor rides into a poor woman’s life and sweeps her off her feet. Nothing causes any real problems in their life (except some contrived reasons about Hanako’s none existent ‘independence’ which only exists to delay their marriage),everyone is ridiculously nice, and the whole novel consists of Hiro serenading Hanako and essentially singing poems about his love of a simple domestic life.
I am not a fan of the romance genre, but I decided to give it a read anyway because I am interested in Japanese history. If you’re reading it primarily as a historical novel, then look elsewhere because although it gives your some interesting tidbits about Japanese culture in the beginning, any conflicts or issues of the age are treated very superficially and relegated to the background. Although it does smatter the odd Japanese word throughout the story, you could easily change the setting to medieval Europe and all you wouldn’t really have to change much except the character names and clothing.
As for the romance, the writing is very smooth and gentle, and the characters are very idealised and likeable. Hiro himself is a pure Knight In Shining armour wish fulfillment character. He’s noble, from a wealthy family, talented and constantly protects Hanako and has no other dreams than raising a family with her.
Hanako is every bit the delicate flower for Hiro to protect and a damsel distress (though more out of her own incompetence at everyday life than any outside threat). Because Hanako is sweet and likeable, I didn’t mind that she was not particularly strong; it was charming reading about a kind, gentle person with a rough life being swept off her feet and treated as someone valuable for the first time in her life. At first I enjoyed watching this kind woman suddenly finding herself loved for the first time in her life, but it got frustrating hearing this woman being described as ‘strong’, ‘independent’ and ‘sturdy’. She is pretty fragile, even for the time period she’s in, and is a stunningly incompetent farmer.
She constantly over sleeps; she ignores an important business letter and buries her head in the sand for over a year; she completely forgets to think about preparing an animal shelter to protect them from the upcoming winter; whenever Hiro goes away for evens short while, she falls apart and she can’t even manage to keep the food supply stocked up.I wouldn’t trust this woman to babysit a pot plant let alone look after a farm. I really don’t know how she managed to survive for a year without Hiro to rescue her.
Not all women have to be badasses like Katniss or Lisbeth Salander, or chessmasters like the Tyrell women, but if you want to create a more frail heroine, don’t go telling us how ‘strong’ she is when everything that happens points to the contrary.
Another major problem I had with this novel was its lack of engaging conflict. I liked Hiro and Hanako and the writing style, but after a point reading about their idealistic farming life became very tedious. Even though class and bloodline was a massive issue in that time period (and still matters a lot in modern Japan), it never really causes any problems for the couple (partly because we conveniently learn that Hanako was descended from a prosperous family).
The main villain was shamefully dispatched in the most anticlimatic showdown I’ve ever seen. Hiyoshi, Hiro’s old Daimyo, was the first character we’re introduced to and throughout the novel we follow his efforts to raise an army to fight the emporor. These factors would imply there was going to be a major force to contend with. However, he constantly failed to gain strength throughout the novel and was never a credible threat.The final conflict can essentially be summed up as this:
HIYOSHI: I travelled all this way so you will join me!
HIRO: No… You’re kind of a dick.
HIYOSHI: Then you will die! I will rush at you even though I have no fighting skills!
HIRO: Okay, now you’re just embarrassing yourself…
HIYOSHI: YOU WILL NEVER TAKE ME ALIVE!
HIRO: Oh, come on!
I know this is not an action novel, but even so, this was shamefully anticlimactic. If they’d made the Way of the Warrior more central to Hiro’s character or made Hiyoshi a credible threat rather than a spoilt child, it could have been an interesting psychological conflict. But because the setting was merely a pretty backdrop to the romance, there was nothing at stake here.
VERDICT: This story is pure, warm fluff- like a cup of chocolate before you go to bed that fills you with pleasant thoughts before your brain switches off. The writing is flowing and pleasant. If you’re a woman (you will not like this if you don’t have ovaries) who wants a pure wish fulfillment fantasy about a knight in shining armour in an unusual setting, then give it a try. If you want anything deeper or more exciting, then give it a miss.
RATING: 3 samurai in shining armour/ 5