The Gilded Fan by Christina Courtenay


This was a remarkably silly story – which was a shame, because I couldn’t fault the actual historical background information in it, and it contained some wonderful descriptions of what was to become the Dutch East Indies.  A young woman in Japan in 1641, the daughter of a Japanese warlord and an Englishwoman who’d stowed away on a ship to Japan (as you do) travelled to Amsterdam on a Dutch ship with a mainly English crew, fell in love with the captain, and then discovered that he was her late mother’s sister’s stepson (coincidences do happen, but that was pushing it) … and that his stepmother hated him because he looked like the child she’d had with her lover, the man her sister was supposed to marry before running off to Japan, and she’d been forced to break off her engagement with a second man, and marry a third man, who was the captain’s widowed father, and the captain looked like this child because his mother had been the lover’s cousin … oh, for crying out loud!   And then the girl dressed up as a man to fight in the Roundhead Army.  As you do.

And, as I said, it was a shame, because the historical background was faultless.  I’m not sure that working the Shogun’s decision to expel all foreigners from Japan because of concerns about Western/Christian influence, the Dutch East India Company and their trade in the East Indies, the Eighty Years’ War, the growth of Puritanism and the English Civil War into one relatively short book was a particularly good idea.  But it could have worked, given a better plot.

The idea was that our heroine Midori was at risk in Japan because of the decision to expel foreigners, decided to travel to England to live with her long-lost maternal relatives in Plymouth, and persuaded our hero Nicholas/Nico to let her travel on board his ship.  There were some genuinely fascinating descriptions of Batavia, although they were rather spoilt by a silly sub-plot in which another crew member drugged her with opium … but, hooray, Nico rescued her before anything terrible could happen.  They then arrived in Amsterdam, and we got a reminder about the Eighty Years’ War , but then all this ridiculous business about being step-cousins came out.

When they got to England, it turned out that the relations were now all Puritans, and didn’t approve of any of Midori’s ways.  She tried to fit in with them, apart from training one of her cousins in Japanese martial arts.  Nico somehow ended up in the Roundhead army, and then she decided to join it as well.  They both nearly died.  They both survived.  They got married and lived happily ever after. What it said about Puritanism, and about the Civil War, was fine from a historical viewpoint – even if they were on the Roundhead side! – but the storyline was just too silly.  Them being step-cousins was bad enough, and that bizarre tale about the lover and the fiancé and the husband and the child and the first wife being the lover’s cousin … oh, please!

Interesting idea.  Not impressed with the execution!  It was all so unnecessary.  The story would have worked OK if it’d just been about a half-Japanese, half-English girl fleeing Japan and falling in love with the captain of a Dutch East India Company ship.  Why bring in all that other rubbish?!   To be fair, I think it was partly because this was a sequel to an earlier book, and the author was trying to tie up several loose ends, but this really wasn’t the way to do it!!

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