The day before yesterday I concluded over 250-hours of audiobook listening over what I believe was the 4-years of my going through James Clavell’s 6-part historical fiction series known as ‘The Asian Saga.’
Spanning internally the years 1600 to 1979, and set in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Iran by turns, the stories all add up to one thing – the beauty and horror of what happens when East meets West and the Occident meets the Orient.
James Clavell for his part breathes narrative, and clearly draws on his experience in the Pacific campaign of World War II to write at least the first book he published in the series, though not the first book in terms of the internal chronology of the series, King Rat.
Favorites and Least
Though the shortest of the six, I personally found the story set in a Japanese POW camp in Singapore during WWII to be the hardest slog. The audiobook was a mere 16-hours, but it felt longer than the four others which each topped out over 50-hours – not because the quality of the writing was poor, but because the subject matter was a bit more bleak and depressing, emphasizing the cruelty of man against man as Australians, Brits, and American soldiers, sailors, and airmen plot and maneuver to survive the deprivations, beatings, and threats of their prison guards.
Doing the compare and contrast with my two favorites in the series – Shōgun and Tai-Pan – set in 1600 feudal Japan and 1841 Hong Kong respectively – there is a balance of realism in the push and pull of ambitious men striving to prevail in more than mere survival even in the midst of setbacks and mortal dangers.
Whatever the setting of the particular book, though, perhaps the most exciting dynamic in the series is the interconnectedness of the characters, institutions, events, and cultures. The individual plots and character progressions of nearly 400-years are all interwoven in strong but subtle enough ways to make the whole feel believable, substantive, and immersive.
Yes, there is a pulpy feel to the narrative. The men are very masculine, and there is a great deal of intrigue concerning beautiful ladies. But then that is half the reason why the real men from history on which these fictional characters were based set out risking life and limb to build trading empires, conduct espionage and diplomacy, and fight. And when such is the case, where would the fun be in neutering everything to make it less exciting, dramatic, and familiar?
Not for younger readers, Clavell’s Asian Saga is nevertheless a rich and compelling series, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. If you pick it up like I did, you may find as I found that these books spark a greater curiosity to understand the rich and peculiar history and tradition of the West’s dealings with the Far East. Heaven knows they are not over and done with, and the past is prologue to what will in real life likely prove to be the titanic struggle of our day – China and the United States of America vying for leadership or domination of the world in varied, multi-faceted games of cat and mouse, cloak and dagger, and compromise.
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