The Gilded Fan by Christina Courtenay, Choclit Publishing, 2013, 350 pages, ISBN 978-1-78189-008-0, £7.99
The Gilded Fan is sure to bring a smile to the lips of even a reader a little cynical of ‘historical romance’. Not a genre I had read before, the setting in 17th Century Japan was nonetheless rather appealing. Still, I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into! I was pleasantly surprised to find this book a genuinely rollicking read; well-researched, well-rounded, and never dull.
Midori Kumashiro, our heroine, is an impressive young woman. The recently orphaned daughter of a samurai daimyo warlord, she’s also half-English on her mother’s side. Suddenly, in 1641, the Shogun decrees all foreigners are to be expelled from Japan, even those with a Japanese parent. Securing a passage to her mother’s native land, Midori finds herself adrift at sea in more ways than one. But she’s well prepared. She can turn her hand to anything – she’s adept at swordplay, backgammon, cooking, and haiku poetry; she’s even got a knowledge of healing herbs and medicine.
Our dashing hero, Nico Noordholt, Captain of the Zwarte Zwann of The Dutch East India Company, also emerges as likeable from the start. He gives in to Midori’s request to be given a place on board, even though he’s sure guarding her from the 100 strong all-male crew will be a total pain. Nico’s characterisation is perhaps a little less vivid than that of Midori. He is clearly a torn man; a diamond in the rough. He’s impetuous and handsome, kind and knowledgeable. However, the amount of times Nico muttered or thought something along the lines of ‘Damnation, but you’re a fool, man…’, ‘Damn her!’ or ‘Damn, but she was magnificent’ made me wonder if ‘damn’ was the only curse in common use in the 17th century! Although a little repetitive, I was able to see it as a bit of a quirk on Nico’s part. I did, however, far prefer the more creative ‘A pox on it!’.
Perhaps my favourite section of the book is around the port of Batavia. Nico is onshore, speaking with the Governor General of Batavia when sees his precious cargo Midori stroll by, ignoring strict orders to stay aboard the ship. Nico surpises the Governor by stopping mid sentence: ‘Oh, yes, in fact, I remember my aunt once saying… Godverdamme!’. ‘Your aunt said what?’ says the Governor. He rushes out, but is not in time to stop Midori and her appointed guardian, Harding, being tricked into a back-alley opium den to be met by a leering Barker and his ill-intentioned English cronies. Creative and compelling, the gruesome punishment meted out to the guilty parties once back on the ship later is even better.
I’d hoped for further adventurous scenes in ports along the way, as it took a full year to sail from Japan to Amsterdam, and I was a little bit let down to be whizzed across the ocean straight into the Dutch harbour in only a few sentences. But this being only halfway through the book, I knew there was much more action to come. Midori again proves herself to be brave and resourceful, fitting into Puritanical family life in Plymouth; even whipping out her trusty swords and fighting in the English Civil War to defend her new clan. Nico again proves himself rash and foolish by rushing off and jumping to conclusions. Men, eh?
Now, this is a romance, and our hero and heroine are so clearly meant together that the reader can’t help wonder why they don’t just get it on with it. Nico and Midori have ‘almost irresistible urges’, ‘strange jolts shooting through’, odd feelings and shivers… but they don’t know why. If it weren’t such a relief when they finally marry at the end, it might be an anti-climax. There’s still one more surprise in store though…
With a cast of interesting and characters and some interwoven suspense (What is Nico’s connection to Plymouth? Why does her mother’s sister hate Midori so much?), The Gilded Fan is the type of light fiction that is often described as a ‘holiday read’ – and indeed it would be a good one. But it is also just ideal for the frazzled commuter’s brain to relax with, being a sweeping and engrossing tale, and not at all taxing. A satisfying read, The Gilded Fan is a perfect Valentine’s Day treat.