“Child of Vengeance” David Kirk (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

Child of Vengeance David Kirk book cover

“Child of Vengeance” is set around 1600 when the Samurai feudal system was at its height in Japan. A young boy, Bennosuke, is effectively orphaned. His mother is dead (but neither he nor the readers know why or how yet) and his father, a Samurai, is away serving his master Lord Shinmen. Bennosuke polishes his father’s armour and is cared for by his uncles, a priest and a Samurai. Both his uncles hope to persuade him to apprentice to their way of life.

Meanwhile the Samurai Lords are preparing for war. The Shogun is dying, his heir only a young boy, so the lords are jostling for position, knowing that a power struggle is brewing. Lord Shimen is forging an uneasy alliance with Lord Nakata. Both are in the service of Lord Ukita. Lord Shinmen takes Bennosuke’s father, Munisai Shinmen (David Kirk uses the Western form of given name first, family name second), to report to Lord Nakata on their latest victory. Lord Nakata’s spoilt son, Hayato, complains about the damage done to the castle he’d hoped to make his home away from his dominating father. Neither Lord Shinmen nor Munisai have any patience with a spoilt brat who hasn’t participated in the battle. Lord Shinmen orders Munisai to return home and heal. His arm was injured in the battle.

Reluctantly Munisai returns to his home village. He left after his wife’s death and knows he will have to face his son whom he has not seen for eight years. Bennosuke’s reaction is fear: can he make his samurai father proud? Ironically, Munisai is not Bennosuke’s biological father. Munisai’s wife was also a Samurai and when her proud, young husband did not stop womanising after marriage, she sought vengeance. She took a lover, deliberating choosing a low-born peasant, who was Bennosuke’s biological father. Munisai caught them in bed, in his rage he killed both his wife and her lover. His pride meant he brought Bennosuke up as his own. Now he takes the opportunity to train Bennosuke as a Samurai. Bennosuke learns the truth about his mother’s death when he overhears an argument between his father and uncle. This hardens his resolve to become a Samurai.

Training is interrupted when Hayato, Lord Nakata’s son, visits their village with a band of Samurai body-guards. One of Nakata’s Samurai asks a peasant to hold up a bamboo screen to demonstrate his sword-skills, but he amputates one of the peasant’s hands and issues a challenge to Munisai. Munisai is still injured and suggests Bennosuke takes his challenge instead. Bennosuke may only be thirteen, but he’s tall (although not yet his final height of just over six foot). Bennosuke wins the challenge, killing the Samurai. Hayato and his Samurai leave. However, that’s not the end of the matter. Munisai sends his son to train under a Samurai friend of his in a neighbouring village, fearing that Nakata will return to their village to seek vengeance for the death of his Samurai. Unknown to Munisai, Hayato and his Samurai are also in the neighbouring village. One of them recognises Bennosuke, who, in the resulting melee, cuts off Hayato’s arm.

The Nakata complain of the insult to Lord Ukita and Munisai and Bennosuke are summoned. Under Hayato’s urging, Lord Nakata demands a life is given for the loss of his son’s arm. Munisai, knowing his injury means he’ll never be fit to fight again anyway, offers himself in place of his son. Lord Nakata protests but is overruled by Lord Ukita, who also rules that Bennosuke must give up his Samurai path and become a monk. Munisai is to commit seppuku, a ritualised disembowelment. To commit seppuku honorably, he must cut across his stomach without crying out in pain while another samurai decapitates him. Lord Shinmen has to give the signal for the decapitation. However, Hayato, leans on Lord Shinmen’s arm, preventing him from giving the signal, meaning that Munisai has a dishonorable death.

Bennosuke disappears. He begins to question the Samurai’s beliefs in a honorable death. He knows it falls to him to seek vengeance for the fact his father was robbed of an honorable death. But queries what this will actually achieve. In disguise he joins another Samurai clan, who accept him based on his skills with swords, and is called into the battle every Samurai has been preparing for: the Great War triggered by the Shogun’s death. The war offers him the opportunity to get the vengeance he was seeking, but can he get a spoilt brat to understand the samurai honour and the meaning of death?

David Kirk has clearly done his research, but doesn’t let details hold up the plot. “Child of Vengeance” is loosely based on the story of Myamoto Musashi, a legendary Samurai warrior. His minimalist style allows the reader to enter the world of Samurai without feeling they are also entering a history lesson. It’s the characters who propel the plot forward. David Kirk’s filmic eye serves him well in describing the battle scenes, ensuring the reader never feels overwhelmed by events. “Child of Vengeance” lives up to its publicity as a thrilling historical epic.

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