Imagine a country isolated from the rest of the world, threatened by invasion and ruled by an emperor so secret his name cannot even be spoken but whose decisions are all that stand between peace and war.
Imagine then that this reclusive emperor has the fragile unfocussed mind of a sickly child, that the true power lies with his powerful manipulative mother and that you, a seventeen year old country girl, are the one chosen to persuade him away from the seclusion of the past to embrace new ideas and trade.
This high stakes game of politics and statecraft is not the plot of the latest Game-Of-Thrones-style fantasy but the fate Okatsu the very real daughter of a minor Samurai noble growing up in mid-nineteenth century Japan. The Japanese mistrust foreigners and will only trade with the Dutch so, when four large black ships arrive from America and begin the pressure of gunboat diplomacy, the instinct of the rulers is to retreat further.
But Nariakira, Okatsu's Samurai overlord, welcomes these overtures from the west and he believes Japan's future lies in embracing them. He has a fondness for the intelligent headstrong young girl and with her in mind he hatches an audacious plan. Okatsu will marry the emperor and persuade him to open a dialogue with the barbarians. It is the ultimate sacrifice of love over duty; to fulfil her destiny Okatsu must leave her home, family and childhood sweetheart to enter the secluded world of the Edo Palace. The trip through its gates is one way - as the shogun's queen, she will never re-emerge and if he dies before her, she will live out her days as a nun.
It's a terrifying prospect for a teenage girl, made worse by the knowledge that she will be the shogun's third wife: the previous two have died in mysterious circumstances killed, she suspects, by her mother-in-law. How will Okatsu (right) triumph over a wily adversary old enough to be her grandmother? Will she even live long enough to see her mission through?
This story is all the more chilling because it is true. Okatsu became Princess Atsu and Lesley Downer (below) lifts the veil on this cloistered suffocating world with all the sensitivity and attention to detail you would expect from the author of the Shogun Quartet of which this is the first and last book. As the fresh air of the Samurai region of Japan's deep south is replaced by the stuffy interior of the sealed palanquin, Okatsu travels blindly in more ways than one. Inside the austere palace walls is a suffocating world sparkling with opulence, magnificent costumes laden with symbolism and pleasure gardens of exquisite luxury, but it also glitters with dangerous politics. The women of the palace are birds trapped in a gilded cage and their beaks are sharp, if Okatsu falters, they'll peck her to death.
It is Downer's portrayal of Okatsu's resolve, her courage, and her determination to succeed for Nariakira and for Japan that bring this fascinating period of Japanese history to life. However little you know about these worlds within worlds, you can't fail to be as drawn in as I was. In fact I enjoyed the book so much I read the book with a tablet in one hand so I could discover more about Okatsu and her contribution to history as the pages turned.