No more than a few dozen excellent examples were ever published

Tuesday, August 7th, 2018

Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby kicked off a wave of horror novels that flourished throughout the 1970s and 80s. James Clavell’s Shogun kicked off a similar, smaller wave of historical adventure novels set in Asia:

I’ve long been a big fan of these books which, for lack of a better term, I refer to collectively as ‘The Children of Shogun.’

Alas, Shogun didn’t produce nearly as many bastard offspring as Rosemary’s Baby did. It was fairly easy for any professional writer with imagination and a passion for horror stories to turn out a handful of 300-page supernatural thrillers over the course of a couple of decades. Producing a 900-page Shogun-like epic is another matter entirely. The Children of Shogun were written mostly by men and women with years of personal experience in Asia. They tended to be journalists or academics with a profound interest in the history and culture of the East. If you were a horror fan in the 1970s and ’80s (and I was), it was easy to find titles to feed your hunger for demonic children, seductive witches, and haunted houses. If you craved massive historical epics featuring singsong girls, opium pipes, rickshaws, treaty ports, forbidden cities, warlords, seppuku, pillow dictionaries, foot binding, and godowns filled with tea or silk or jade, feeding your hunger took a bit more initiative.

Nevertheless, quite a few such books got published between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s, and I’ve read dozens of them. The phenomenon seems to have faded over the past 20 years, giving way to other literary booms: vampire novels, fantasy epics, young-adult dystopian series. It is unlikely the boom will ever be revived. In a critical review of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth posted on Goodreads, author Celeste Ng probably spoke for many of today’s progressive readers when she complained about “the weirdness that arises from a Westerner writing about a colonized country.” Apparently it’s all right when an Asian author like Haruki Murakami (whose work I love) writes novels inspired by the likes of Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, and Franz Kafka. But Westerners who write about the adventures of English-speaking protagonists in Asia are likely to be shouted down with accusations of cultural appropriation.


One thing that stands out about these authors is that many of them led lives nearly as adventurous as their protagonists. Anthony Grey spent 27 months in a Chinese prison. During his long career in journalism, Noel Barber was stabbed five times and shot in the head once. James Clavell was a prisoner of war during WWII. Robert Elegant covered both the Korean and Vietnam wars as a journalist and Richard Nixon once called him “my favorite China expert.” If books in this genre seem somewhat more convincing than horror novels of the same era, perhaps it’s because no horror novelists of the era were ever actually possessed by Satan, bitten by vampires, or capable of starting fires with their minds. But, while horror novels are still being churned out in large numbers, almost no one is writing Shogun-like sagas any longer. Soon the genre may cease to exist entirely. If you don’t believe me, consider the decline of the American Indian novel written by white authors.

During much of the twentieth century, white American authors produced some excellent novels featuring Native American characters. The list includes masterpieces such as Oliver La Farge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Laughing Boy (1929) and Scott O’Dell’s Newbery Medal-winning Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960). Other prominent titles in the genre include Thomas Berger’s 1964 novel Little Big Man (subsequently adapted into a film starring Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway directed by Arthur Penn), Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name (1967), and Douglas C. Jones’s A Creek Called Wounded Knee (1978).

But the production of such novels has dwindled markedly over the last 40 years or so. This probably has something to do with what happened to Ruth Beebe Hill after the publication of her 1978 novel Hanta Yo. The early reviews of the book were positive. A reviewer for the Harvard Crimson called Hanta Yo “the best researched novel yet written about an American Indian tribe.” Native American author N. Scott Momaday, author of House Made of Dawn, admired the book. David Wolper, the producer of the landmark TV miniseries Roots purchased the film rights to Hanta Yo and planned to give it the same treatment as Roots. Alas, before Wolper could put his plan into action, the book began drawing criticism from Native American groups contending that it was an inaccurate portrayal of the Sioux.


If you haven’t yet experienced the joys of exploring ‘The Children of Shogun,’ a great literary pleasure still awaits you. But read slowly and linger over each book. No more than a few dozen excellent examples were ever published. And no new titles are likely to appear in the foreseeable future, if Celeste Ng and her ilk have their way.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    I once thought of writing a story based on my experiences in a foreign country. Then it occurred to me: if I don’t get every single detail right — or maybe even if I do — members of that culture might rake me over the coals.

    I’m thinking I could do it as what passes as SF these days, just fictionalize the society thoroughly enough to have plausible deniability. “It’s not really Krappistan! It’s an alien planet! Yeah, that’s the ticket!”

  2. Wang Wei Lin says:

    I can highly recommend the Chinese ‘epic’ from 2012, Qin Empire: Alliance that’s based on a popular novel. Historically placed approx 350BC. Costuming is execellent. Character development is excellent. Battle scenes are not so good. Good enough that it inspired me to read a history book on the Qin-Han period. See it on Netflix.

  3. Albion says:

    I take Harry Jones’ points above about knowing a location thoroughly in fiction, but for someone who hasn’t been to Japan (and certainly not in the 1600s) Clavell’s descriptions of Japanese life in Shogun was enough to effectively transport me there.

    In other words, a few good descriptions in an interesting story is enough to take me there. By contrast, I have seen movies and read novels and begun too much to notice period detail. I felt the movie/book was trying too hard to put me in ‘the time.’ A little lighter touch in such fringe features might have made me concentrate more of the flow of the story.

  4. Graham says:

    I think the last really good historical fiction I read, including in worldbuilding as well as narrative and characterization, was Stephen Pressfield’s work. Even he only really approached perfection in Gates of Fire, although Tides of War and The Afghan Campaign were pretty good. Christian Cameron’s work is good, but his main series’ still sound too modern. His one volume on Alexander from the perspective of Ptolemy, though, is something remarkable. As good as Pressfield.

    Based on what I’ve seen, historical fiction and science fiction, which have much in common, both largely died in this century. Fantasy too.

    All appear to be dominated by tie-ins, of which but a few are good [these do exist- in Star Wars, Plagueis is almost literature if you step into the mindset of thinking the SW galaxy is real and has a history].

    Also by increasingly turgid writing, or simpleminded writing at the other end, simple premises, long series, trite takes on characters and situations and moral problems, poorly sketched Mary Sue characters, and so on. And there are far more Mary Sues than Marty Stus, and its getting worse.

    Yes, 90% of everything is crap. But I think Sturgeon was over-egging the pudding in his time, even for SF. Now it’s more true of his genre than it was then.

    There’s exceptions, there always are, at least in SF. HF, I have a harder time finding it.

  5. Harry Jones says:

    The great thing about historical fiction is that there’s nobody alive to get on your case if they don’t agree with your take on their culture.

    A few historians might get out of joint, but I could probably handle that.

    The thing is, I’ve never been to medieval Japan.

  6. Graham says:

    Well, if that’s the bar then the genre would be impossible, even writing about the past of one’s own culture.

    Of course, setting that as a hard limit would at least mean the authorial ignorance would be limited to ignorance in time, not space.

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