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Review: Sword of Honor, by David Kirk
Doubleday, 2015. 441 pp. $27

Musashi Miyamoto, the young protagonist of this absorbing, far-ranging novel (and a real seventeenth-century figure), walks away after the battle of Sekigahara, determined to live. For this revolutionary decision, which the samurai code calls the height of dishonor, Musashi becomes an outlaw.

Jacket design by Michael J. Windsor for Doubleday.

Jacket design by Michael J. Windsor for Doubleday.

Three transgressions make the young man’s life forfeit. First, he fought for a lord on the losing side, for which Musashi should have committed seppuku, ritual suicide. However, he’s long detested that custom and goes into hiding instead. Second, he’s accused of having insulted a warrior from a powerful clan whom he slew in single combat, a charge he denies, to no avail. Thirdly, and most significantly, he announces to all and sundry that seppuku is criminal nonsense; that the samurai code, known to initiates as “the Way,” is morally false; and that any man who kills for a cause other than his own–as when a lord commands him to–is a coward. Not content with that, Musashi takes these views on the road, trying to prevent seppuku when he happens across it, and fending off the samurai despatched to kill him.

In other hands, perhaps, this arresting premise would merely provide excuses for grisly combat, of which there’s no shortage here, or an adventure story that makes the pages turn rapidly, as these do. But Kirk has much bigger psychological, political, and moral game in mind, and his epic sweep, focus on justice, and using a specific case to portray an entire society remind me of Kurosawa films like Rashomon or Seven Samurai. Throughout the novel, characters constantly challenge themselves and others to define what the purpose of violence is, and what an individual person is to make of that.

As a fellow fugitive from the Way haltingly observes:

What difference, what individual difference, did you and I make at Sekigahara? . . . Yet our army lost, and so we two must bear the shame. To be hated. What if our army had won? We would be loved, and yet we would have had the exact same effect upon the victory. Would have had . . . what we had before. But magnified. And what would we have done to earn it? Nothing. No. No. It is as though we . . . as though human beings are . . . buckets or, or, or . . . vessels.

Yet nothing’s so simple. Musashi sees no other choice–indeed, he seeks no other–than to prove by the sword that the Way is bankrupt. The contradiction is obvious, but not to Musashi, who believes he’s honest because he fights only for himself and his ideals. He assumes that each martial victory will convince other samurai to abandon the Way, and he’s astounded when they respond by trying to attack him.

But there’s more. The samurai sent to kill him, Akiyama, is himself an outcast, and Kirk exploits that, leading Akiyama to question why he’s been sent on this mission, and what, precisely, is the moral threat that his quarry represents. Along the way, Musashi lands with a blind woman and a young girl who challenge his assumptions, and among whom he becomes a different person from the raging swordsman who enjoys the combat at which he’s preternaturally gifted.

Is there yet more? Yes, there is. Musashi’s quest brings him to Kyoto, where an uneasy peace simmers with conflict. The Tokugawa Shogunate, the victors of Sekigahara, have moved the capital to Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and left behind a military governor. Many people in Kyoto resent the Tokugawa for that, perhaps none more than the Yoshioka, a famous samurai school. It’s their champion whom Musashi allegedly insulted at the battle, and they’re a political power in the city. Staying out of trouble is therefore a full-time job for Musashi, and he’s no good at it.

Sword of Honor follows Child of Vengeance, which I reviewed December 8, 2014. Each stands on its own, though the precursor shows how Musashi has always had a dual nature, with healing impulses as well as violent ones. Sword of Honor is a deeper, more proficient novel, though, and I’m glad to see that Kirk has taken to showing his characters’ emotions more often than telling them, a flaw that marred the previous book at times. I could have done with fewer, less grisly battle scenes, but none seemed gratuitous, and there’s no denying that the samurai world, as with any knightly class, was based on violence.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher, in return for an honest review.