The Swords of Silence
By Shaun Curry
Harper Collins (2019)
Review by Laurence Green
‘The crying and wailing grew louder as officials tore families apart. Samurai assaulted several villagers as husbands and wives tried to embrace for the last time. One wife tried to give her husband a last kiss but an official punched her hard in the face, spattering blood around the courtroom. As her children wailed, samurai kicked them in the face, telling them to shut up or die. The husband tried to rescue his family, but a samurai slammed him in the head with the butt end of a sword. He collapsed onto the floor and lay unconscious, covered in blood that oozed from a large gash.’
The above passage offers but a sample of the raucous violence that runs through the heart of Shaun Curry’s historical fantasy The Swords of Silence. Based on the real-life incidence of systematic persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan by the Tokugawa Shogunate, the story takes as its focus Father Joaquim Martinez, a Portuguese priest who has made Japan’s Hizen province (present day Saga and Nagasaki prefectures) his home. Oh, and he just so happens to have become a proficient martial artist in the process. Throw in a plot that feels heavily inspired by the classic Akira Kurosawa movie Seven Samurai - threatened peasants are presented with a ransom they have no hope of meeting - and the stage is set for a swashbuckling tale of swordplay and daring deeds.
Dark, gruesomely violent historical fiction is having something of a renaissance at the moment, but unfortunately, it is evident from the get-go that The Swords of Silence is certainly no Hilary Mantel-esque epic masterwork. Shades of character nuance are scant, and even Martinez himself - our supposed viewpoint onto the troubled machinations of Tokugawa Japan - feels more like a wooden automaton than a real person. Travel here, do this, kill that enemy, repeat. Each chapter is on average just six pages long, headed up with a location and date: ‘31 May 1626 - Shogun's Castle'. The feeling, all in all, is often more like a role playing game than a novel. Likewise, when we are told of Christians lashed to the stake and burned alive - ‘The priest’s eyes bulge as his face slowly blistered and melted’ - the effect is far from sombre; tonally it’s more like the culmination to an Indiana Jones flick. The hammy Hollywood B-Movie thrills are entertaining, to an extent, but the quantity of it is so unceasingly relentless that it all soon becomes tediously numbing.
This is far from the first time this particular period of history has served as inspiration for fictional narratives that ply the delicate line between faith and failure, fact and fiction. Without a doubt most famous amongst them is Shusaku Endo’s iconic Silence, first published in 1966, before going on to inspire not just one, but two, feature-length film adaptations (Masahiro Shinoda’s in 1971, and Martin Scorcese’s in 2016). While each adaptation had its respective strengths and weaknesses, they remained true to the spirit of what made the original novel such an enduring work - the fundamental crisis of faith and its uneasy relationship with power that revolves unerringly around the book’s characters. Every decision, every movement, had ramifications that, ultimately, would have to be reconciled against one’s self image and self perception. It is this inner depth, this deeper mental landscape, that is utterly absent in The Swords of Silence.
More recently, Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard’s Yasuke. The True Story of the Legendary African Samurai proved to be a masterclass in pairing bonafide scholarly research to a thrilling fictional narrative. But whereas their tale excelled in its propulsive, minimalist direction and memorable key players, every page of The Swords of Silence feels bogged down by its dense, overly descriptive style. Likewise, while efforts are made to paint heroes and villains here, the effect is often more like that of pantomime - extreme to the point of hilarity. Insults like ‘Shut your mouth, gaijin, or I'll cut out your tongue' make regular occurrences, whilst elsewhere, the Shogun is seen leeringly proclaiming to a captive: ‘You are a beautiful young man. Let's see if we can change that... Start by removing the ears'. Lines like these feel heavily reminiscent of the cheaply printed mass-market paperback fantasy novels beloved by generations of British schoolboys and those for who the whiff of tabletop board-gaming will forever hold an irresistible allure. This is ready-meal fiction for the kids that grew up watching Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill and instantly thought a samurai sword was the coolest invention known to man.
Moreover, the musculature of the novel could have been given a major shot in the arm if it had also managed to do a better job of capturing some kind of richly evocative ‘essence’ or atmosphere of what 17th century Japan might have possibly felt like; but once again, any sensation of this is paper thin at best. The prose is peppered with little snatches of Japanese (neh, hai) and honorifics (-kun, -chan, -san), but just as adding seasoning to a poorly cooked dish will only go so far toward making it palatable, all this doesn't necessarily make things feel more ‘Japanese’. At worst, there’s a lingering sense that if you switched out the character and place names, the novel could just as easily be taking place in some Game of Thrones-esque fantasy setting. For those that know Japan well, the surface level engagement will prove endlessly frustrating. While for those unfamiliar with the wider historical backdrop, the opportunity to convey the deeper significance of this important chapter in Japan’s wider history is arguably squandered. Emotion, character, meaning - all are lost beneath simple plot-centric function.
But perhaps this is to ask too much of a novel that in many ways, is simply asking its readers to revel in what could be seen as a kind of literary take on the martial-arts movie. Fans of old-school historical fantasy may well be readily sated by the cheap thrills aplenty on offer here, and for them it is worth noting that The Swords of Silence is the first part in a planned Swords of Fire trilogy. The second installment - Of Blood and Flame - is due out in August, and promises more action-packed shenanigans from ‘European Samurai’ Joaquim Martinez as he does battle once again with the fury of the Shogun.