Takashi Matsuoka’s first novel takes us to 1861, six years after the opening of Japan to the West. Genji, the young, charismatic Great Lord of Akaoka, welcomes a small group of American missionaries—all with hidden agendas—to his province, where they plan to build a church. Two of the missionaries, Emily and Matthew, befriend Genji, and as cultural barriers among them fall, they become integral to Genji’s survival. Ancient enemies are conspiring against him. With the help of loyal retainers—notably his master samurai uncle, Shigeru, and his beautiful and brilliant geisha lover, Heiko—Genji struggles to repel his enemies and to understand and fulfill the visions he receives of the future.

This is not a run-of-the-mill, East-meets-West story. Matsuoka’s cast is endearing; his plot, fast-paced; and his style, witty. He captures real life in ancient Japan, unshielded from violence, sorrow, retribution—and happiness. We inhabit and feel all the extremes of an untamed world in which samurai calmly commit hara kiri, but weep at the fleeting beauty of a falling cherry blossom. Though we are at first struck by the strangeness of Genji’s tradition-steeped world, Matsuoka completely transforms our perceptions and integrates us into it. The book’s direct look at all that is gruesome and beautiful about this era helps us to understand and empathize with the Great Lord of Akaoka. This novel delights with plot twists, but also imparts a real taste of a fascinating culture. It’s a must-read for anyone even slightly interested in the mysterious world of ancient Japan.