Thursday, June 29, 2017

[Review + Giveaway] The Peony Lantern by Frances Watts

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Publication (dd/mm/yyyy)01/07/2015
Publisher: ABC Books
Pages: 289
Source: Library (I have since bought a copy)
Genre: YA {Historical | Asian}

Violence | Sexual Content | Profanity

Book Tunes

My Rating
4/5 stars
My thoughts

I am in awe. The Peony Lantern was unlike anything I have previously read before, and while it started off quite slow I was glued to the pages by the end! Watts is sure to be an Aussie YA author I will need to follow closely from now on. If you're interested in reading a YA historical fiction set in Feudal Japan, you need to read The Peony Lantern!

The Peony Lantern is set in Japan in Ansei (安政) 4, 1857. Clumsy and outspoken 16-year-old Kasumi is selected by a respected samurai from Edo (now Tokyo), Lord Shimizu, to travel with him and his nephew back with them to be his wife's lady-in-waiting. His father agrees to the proposal, for there is no refusing a samurai. There, she quickly falls into a routine with her mistress Misaki, and they eventually become friendly. But there is something unusual about her behaviour, and when attacks by anti-Shogun rebels become increasingly frequent and deadly, Kasumi is worried that somehow she has fallen into unsafe territory. Will she ever live to see her family again?

I am a massive Japanophile, so I'm all over anything that has any ties to Japan in it, but that eagerness is always met with some apprehension. I needn't have worried that this book wouldn't accurately portray Feudal Japan culture respectfully, however. I felt like I was truly sent to that world, and through the main character's narration I was able to see and experience many places and things that I will probably never see. I travelled to Japan for a month last year, so there were some familiar sights and smells that Watts beautifully captured in her writing and I felt a bit wistful at times. The description in this book is phenomenal - you can tell that the author has done her research and that she has also travelled to Japan herself, there is no way you can fake it. Watts didn't just write a historical fiction set in Japan for the heck of it, or to cater to a trend. She must have truly believed in the story, and worked hard to bring it justice. She also brings up lots of food, festivals and ghost stories, which all seemed accurately portrayed to me.

I could seriously harp on about the beautiful writing forever, but I'll move on. While it is well written, I also need to mention that it didn't really sound realistic for an illiterate, uneducated mountain girl to speak so eloquently and poetically, but that's okay, I can forgive the author. Kasumi herself isn't anything special, she's pretty much just an average girl who was born in the wrong time. She's loud and forgets her manners often enough to land her in trouble; her family worries that she may never land a husband. Her life is pretty much laid out before her: to become someone's wife. But when she is whisked away to Edo, she is allowed to be a new person, and she discovers ikebana - flower arrangement - painting, samurai life, Noh theatre and more than she possibly could have imagined. While she herself is quite bland I didn't mind too much because the real star of the story, in my opinion, was the side characters and the setting.

Misaki, the wife of Lord Shimizu, was such an interesting character to learn more about! I simultaneously adored her, and was wary of her. I love the relationship that blossoms between her and Kasumi, strained as it must have been under the weight of so many secrets. They share some fun moments, like playing a game that involves swapping Japanese ghost stories, and they just seemed to have great energy together. She is a sympathetic character, and I never really knew whether she was good or bad until the very end! 

There are other characters that you will come across, who aren't all too interesting, other than the fact that they all come from samurai families. I feel like the backstories and general character development was sorely lacking, but I was fine to just go along for the ride and not worry too much about all that stuffThis is where this book faltered and lost a star, but I was still engrossed in the story and emotionally invested in knowing the character's overall fates. Oh, and there is also a love interest, and I certainly was invested in his fate and I quite liked him, and I always enjoyed scenes that included him!

The ending was shocking to me. I'm sure many other readers will have guessed it from ages away, but I'm terrible when it comes to solving mysteries. While the resolution was quite abrupt, and I wish there was MORE to it, I was glad about the directions in which all the characters were headed after the last page. However, I was left wondering what each character would do next, after that last page, and I'll admit I was a bit sad to let the story end. I suppose that's another indication that I truly did enjoy reading this book! As I said before, I'll be watching for more historical fiction from Watts - I'll be sure to pick up The Raven's Wing sometime in the future! :)

The Peony Lantern is a thoughtfully crafted narrative about a young mountain girl's experiences in Edo/Tokyo in Feudal Japan, beautifully woven with descriptive prose and illuminating insights into the life of a lady-in-waiting at a high-ranking samurai home. Frances Watt's dedicated research and planning shine through as the reader is transported to a completely different world in her triumphant representation of an interesting time and place in history.


First lines:

"'Kasumi, I need you to go to the forest,' my mother called as I was putting the last futon into the cupboard.
'Have a lovely walk.' Hana was polishing the walls, which glowed a deep amber from years of smoke and soot. 'Don't spare a thought for those of us who have to work around here.'
'Gathering sansai is work,' I protested. Mountain greens didn't gather themselves.

"'You must slip lightly through the forest like a mist - like your name: Kasumi - leaving no trace.' She was a poet, and her senses were open wide to the world. (3)
"'The plaza - I'd never seen such a large open space - was crisscrossed by streams of people. Travellers moved in groups like schools of fish. To my left were tea stalls, with waitresses beckoning to passers-by. Palanquin bearers called out for custom, offering to convey weary travellers through the city streets in wooden seats or small wooden boxes held aloft by two long poles. Ahead of us was a trio of women, using their fans to point and whisper behind. Their faces were painted white with their eyebrows drawn in black and their lips coloured blood-read. Their hair was twisted into pins and combs. With their gorgeous kimonos and quick, darting movements, they resembled colourful birds. (39)
"'What's happening? Is it an earthquake?'
Isamu laughed. 'It's only the fireworks. Look at the sky.'
Humiliated, I let go of his arm, but almost grabbed it again at the strange and wonderful sight. The sky was exploding with flowers, raining colours, stars bursting to unleash waterfalls with silken threads of red and gold. The sound was tremendous; like the crackling of branches under the weight of snow - not a single tree but a whole forest of branches.
All around me upturned faces were lit with colour, and initial exclamations gave way to sighs of appreciation.
For a long time I forgot where I was, transfixed by the spectacle in the sky. It was like being transported into a celestial realm. (103)
"I watched as he raised his hand to run a finger down my nose to my lips, then traced my mouth.
The feather-light touch made me shiver. 'What are you doing?'
'I'm drawing you, so that I'll have you in my fingertips while you are gone.'
'Oh.' It was hard to think with his touch on my skin so I just stood, not thinking, just feeling. (289)

So........... I actually already bought a copy of this book ages ago, when it was first released. I think I may have gotten it at a book event at a publishing house? And then I forgot about it! I only just saw it because I was going through my room and looked at the many book stacks lying around. AND THERE IT WAS!!! Not a week after I bought myself a fresh copy from Kinokuniya!

The thing is, I don't think this is even the first time I've unknowingly bought a double of a book that I already owned. And yes, I do own Goodreads, and try as I might, it is really hard to keep updated with all the books that I own. My loss (*I COULD HAVE SPENT THAT $15 ON ANOTHER BOOK!!!*) is your gain. *sigh*

  • 1x brand-new copy of The Peony Lantern + bookish swag + Japanese candy
  • Australia only!
  • Closes July 29th! Enter via the Rafflecopter. Please let me know if you're having any problems with entering!

a Rafflecopter giveaway


AUSTRALIA: Abbey's | Boomerang Books | Collins BooksGlee Books | Kinokuniya

INTERNATIONAL: iTunesKobo (only ebook available)

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