Previously I hard read three of David Mitchell’s novels, “Cloud Atlas” (which I thought was one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years), “The Bone Clocks” (which I liked many things about but thought had some serious flaws) and “Slade House” (which I thought was an enjoyable haunted house story). The first obvious difference between them and “The Thousands Autumns of Jacob Zoet” is that this story is told in a much more straightforward manner, rather than having often loosely-linked plotlines taking places over a span of decades or centuries this book mostly focuses on the title character and aside from the epilogue takes place within a couple of years around the end of the 18th Century.
The book begins with Jacob de Zoet arriving as the new clerk at the Dutch East India company’s trading outpost of Dejima in Nagasaki harbour, at the time the sole point of contact between the Japanese Empire and the outside world. It’s not a piece of history I knew much about before and Dejima is an intriguing setting, a tiny outpost of Europe in Feudal Japan where every contact between the Dutch merchants and the local population is tightly controlled with the foreigners usually forbidden from leaving the island and where both the Dutch and Japanese are struggling to really understand each other’s cultures. A fair amount of the first part of the book is spent with the inquisitive Jacob trying his best to learn what he can of the local culture. He might be a stranger in Japan but also often feels a stranger among his own countrymen who focus much of their efforts on trying to gain influence in the company and to try to enrich themselves even at their employer’s expense. He feels very much like the Ned Stark of Dejima, an incorruptible man trying to stay true to his principles while surrounded by corruption. However, even Jacob is not without some flaws and despite planning to marry when he returns to the Netherlands he does make some awkward attempts at trying to start a romantic relationship with Orito, a Japanese midwife studying under the Dutch physician Marinus. This part of the book had an interesting setting and some well-developed characters but I felt the plot was fairly slow-moving and the storyline of the new Dejima’s Chief’s attempts to stem corruption wasn’t particularly compelling. However, I thought the plot moved to a new level in the second portion of the story in which Orito is, against her will, made to join a mysterious religious community headed by the enigmatic and powerful Abbot Enomoto.
Whereas the first part of the story was mostly told from Jacob’s perspective the second portion adds perspectives from several Japanese characters. Orito’s attempts to adjust to deal with the shock of her sudden change of circumstance and to understand the horrors of the religious cult who are imprisoning her make for a much more compelling storyline. Equally compelling is the heroic but possibly quixotic attempts of a lovestruck Samurai to try to rescue her from her fate. This part of the story also introduces what may be subtle elements of supernatural fantasy into what had been up until this point seemed to be straightforward historical fiction. The fantasy elements are subtle enough that taken on its own merits it could perhaps be debated whether anything genuinely supernatural happened or whether it was just characters believing in the supernatural, although having read Mitchell’s books out of order I found this part of the story to be quite reminiscent of the more overtly fantastical plotlines in “The Bone Clocks” and “Slade House”, even without considering the fact that the character of Marinus appears in all three books. I felt that this did a much better job of integrating the fantastical elements into the main plot than The Bone Clocks did with a similar plotline, perhaps the only small flaw would be that there’s little hint of this in the first couple of hundred pages of the story. The concluding section of the book introduces another new plotline with a Royal Navy warship confronting Dejima in an attempt to muscle in on the lucrative trade with the Japanese, leading to a surprising but satisfying finale.
I thought Mitchell’s characterisation was excellent in the previous three books I read and it continues to be equally good here. There’s a lot of good character development here and the supporting cast get plenty of attention, I think just about every significant character gets a chance to tell their own story of what brought them to Dejima. All the characters seem to have well-developed motivations and even the best of the characters will have some flaws while even the more villainous of them may have some redeeming features – the British Captain Penhaligon may be an antagonist but he’s probably a better person than most of the other characters in the story. Jacob is a likeable protagonist and I thought Orito and Ogawa were compelling characters among the Japanese cast. Dr Marinus might be the most entertaining of the characters in the story, especially in a couple of genuinely funny scenes where he takes some unusual measures to try to dissuade Jacob from starting a doomed romance with Orito. Abbot Enomoto was a very effective villain, capable of doing some chillingly evil things but always with his own motivations (although he does at one point give a Bond villain speech to a prisoner which felt a bit out of character).
There is some excellent writing here which paints an evocative picture of life in Dejima and Nagasaki in this period. I can’t claim to be able to judge the historical accuracy of it, but it does feel convincing. The prose may be more straightforward than the constant switching between different literary styles in “Cloud Atlas” but I thought it was very effective.
Overall, I thought this was a very good book with some great characters, a fascinating setting and some memorable plotlines, perhaps the only flaw was that the plot was a bit slow to get going at first.
Rating : 9 / 10
I did enjoy the first book in this series a lot so I was looking forward to reading the sequel. I had thought “Senlin Ascends” got maybe a bit weaker towards its end and I felt “Arm of the Sphinx” similarly started off relatively poorly. The first third of the book follows Thomas Senlin’s unlikely second career as an unusually gentlemanly airship pirate preying on some of the ships flying around the skies surrounding the Tower of Babel. One problem with this part of the story is that it felt like it moved away from the uniqueness of the setting of the Tower itself and I think the airship piracy plotline has been done better elsewhere (Chris Wooding’s “Tales of the Ketty Jay”, in particular). The story also felt a bit aimless at this stage, the first book had a lot of momentum from Senlin’s quest to ascend the Tower in an attempt to track down his missing wife but it was sometimes hard to see how the adventures of the crew of the “Stone Cloud” were taking them any closer to the goal – something even the characters themselves acknowledged. There are also some times when it started to get a bit too hard to really suspend disbelief, in particular there’s a scene with a harpoon gun and a train which didn’t seem like Senlin’s plan should have worked anywhere near as well as it did. Fortunately, I thought the book improved a lot in the second and third sections where the story returns to the Tower itself.
The second part of the story takes place mostly around the Golden Zoo region of the Tower which, like the other regions of the Tower seen in the first book, alternated between being wondrous and sinister (and sometimes both simultaneously). It also introduced a character who might possibly end up being the series’ main villain. The third part of the book might be the best in the series, with Senlin and his crew reluctantly entering the domain of the mysterious being known only as The Sphinx in an attempt to gain his aid in Senlin’s quest. I thought The Sphinx was the most interesting character in the series so far, and I thought the author did a great job of gradually revealing new aspects of his character while keeping The Sphinx’s true motivations enigmatic. Part of the reason this works so well is that we always see The Sphinx from the perspective of one of the other characters and they mostly bring their own pre-conceived prejudices and can’t help this colouring their opinions of The Sphinx’s motivations, it’s quite clear in some cases that they completely misjudged what The Sphinx is trying to do. Sometimes they seem to assign unfairly malign motives to him, while he may be capable of ruthlessness and definitely has his own agenda there are times when he does seem to be genuinely trying to help, although even by the end of the book it’s hard to really be sure whether he’ll ultimately be a force for good or ill. This part of the story also brings in more hints of what the over-arching plotline of the series is going to be, since despite Senlin’s obsession it is clear there’s much more going in the Tower than just his missing wife.
While the first book was shown entirely from Senlin’s perspective the sequel rotates between the points of view of the five crew members of The Stone Cloud (and occasionally others). I think it made sense for the first book to be primarily from Senlin’s perspective because as a newcomer to the Tower he has to learn about it in the same way that a reader does, but broadening out the perspective in the sequel is a good idea. It is interesting to see how Senlin himself looks from the other perspectives and the other crew members are interesting characters and Edith in particular gets some good characters development in this book, although I did find Adam’s story arc to be a little bit dull. Away from the crew of the Stone Cloud, I did find Byron and Ferdinand to be entertaining supporting characters in the chapters set in the Sphinx’s lair.
Overall, I’d say this book got off to a bit of a slow start but I think it recovered in the remaining two thirds of the book and the last section in particular was excellent and set up several interesting plotlines for the rest of the series.
Rating : 8/10