“Sword of Honour” is set in 17th century Japan in the aftermath of the battle at Sekiyahara where the clan Tokugawa took over the Shogunate to become rulers of Japan. Musashi Miyamoto [names in the novel are presented in the Western fashion of given name then family name] is injured but able to walk. His sole ambition had been to become a samurai and avenge the death of his father which had been dishonoured by Hayato, the over-pampered, under-skilled and over-praised heir to Ukita of Nakata clan. In the dark, he stumbles across another injured Samurai who requests that Musashi witnesses his seppuku (a ritualised suicide thought to bring an honourable death to a dishonoured man.) Musashi tries to talk him out of it. He confesses to this stranger that he killed Hayato in vengance for dishonouring his father’s death before realising that the stranger has cut his own throat and bled out.
Meanwhile a new sword is blessed by a Shinto priest and given to Ujinari, son of the counsel to the Yoshioka clan, Tadanari. News has reached them that the Tokugawa have triumped in battle. On receiving a missive from one of their samurai that Musashi Miyamoto is to be assassinated, the task is given to Akiyama.
Miyamoto camps out in hiding, drifting from place to place. He swears he will be an enemy of the Way of the Sword, the code that governs samurai, and regards seppuku as evil: death is not honorable, choosing to live is. Akiyama is tracking Miyamoto and eventually after several skirmishes, the inevitable duel begins. Battle scenes are one of David Kirk’s strengths. Their description is credible, paced compulsively and no one emerges unscathed. The author’s extensive research allows him to describe fighting stances and skill in weaponry and apply these to individual characters whose strategies and abilities are kept in character. Here Akiyama’s experience and agility is pitched against Miyamoto’s strength and youth. However, Miyamoto was still a child learning swordfighting skills when his father died. Since then he’s been self-taught so he knows manoeuvres which are not part of standard samurai training which gives him a slight advantage.
Miyamoto does not kill Akiyama, as the victor in a battle should, but tends his wounds. Learning why Akiyama was sent after him, Miyamoto swears he will go to the Yoshioka school in Kyoto and challenge the man who sent Akiyama to kill him. He explains to Akiyama the reason for the assassination was false. Before the battle at Sekiyahara, he was challenged to a duel by a Yoskioka samurai. Miyamoto won the duel fairly so did not insult the Yoskioka as Akiyama has been led to believe.
When Akiyama’s wounds have healed sufficiently to allow travel, he accompanies Miyamoto to Kyoto, the home of the school of Yoskioka. He knows Kyoto well. Although the city is nominally governed by the Tokugawa clan, the Yoshioka are very powerful and confident enough to carry out acts of sabotage as reminders of their power. Captain Goemon, representative of the Tokugawa clan and governer of Kyoto draws on extensive knowledge of the city and diplomacy skills to keep peace. He later proves a useful ally to Miyamoto without appearing to help him. As they reach the city, Akiyama and Miyamoto find the gates shut due to an incident at the garrison. A Yoshioka samurai tells Denshichiro that he saw Miyamoto and Akiyama set off in the direction of Mount Hiei, home to Shinto temples and graveyards. Akiyama has a shrine to his family there and goes to visit it. Miyamoto gives him privacy and heads into one of the temples to pray. Denshichiro takes a group of samurai with him, leading two to Akiyama’s shrine and sending six after Miyamoto.
Denshichiro’s plan backfires, leading Miyamoto to issue his challenge to the head of Yoskioka, Seijuro Yoskioka, Denshichiro’s brother. Tadanari, had he been given the opportunity, would have counseled against such action. He has been reading the reports Akiyama returned while tracking Miyamoto and thinks the masterless samurai dangerous and beyond control. He attempts to negotiate with Miyamoto who agrees he will accept an apology from Denshichurio and leave Kyoto. Denshichurio appears to agree but insists that Tadanari is absent when the apology is given. Tadanari suspects a trick but does not have the authority to insist he is present. Denshichurio’s trick sets in motion a fatal chain of events that could lead to the destruction of his family or Miyamoto. Ironically, it’s diplomatic counsel Tadanari who strengthens the links in Denshichurio’s chain. Who will win: the samurai who seeks brutal vengence at perceived insults or the masterless whose principle is to choose life and is not afraid of a tactical retreat?
“Sword of Honour” does follow on from “Child of Vengeance”, however, apart from a handful of references to the battle at Sekiyahara, it effectively stands alone. Musashi Miyamoto is the only character from both books and in “Sword of Honour” he’s matured from a child to a young man. The samurai are firmly characters in their own right despite a commonality of scholarship and status.
Although “Sword of Honour” builds towards its climatic battle, it’s not all battles and skirmishes between samurai. In the downtime while wounds heal and battle strategies are thought through, there’s time to take in some scenery and get a feel for life in Kyoto. Miyamoto is not alone. He and Akiyama befriend a blind woman and girl who end up sharing lodgings. The woman makes money by weaving and is not afraid to challenge Miyamoto’s attitude and rigid stance, allowing readers to learn her history. He’s not afraid to own up to doubts and there’s more to Miyamoto than his swordsmanship. Background information is fed in a timely manner and never feels like an information dump. It doesn’t overstay its welcome either. If it were a film, it would be one where you emerge from a cinema and wonder how time seems to have gained three hours because it felt as if the film only lasted for one.