BOOK REVIEWS

Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune Reviews

UPDATE TIME: 2018-07-08 
Review Score: 4 out of 5 star From 30 user ratings
ISBN:1580895859
LANGUAGE:English

" I am a fan of Candace Fleming and Steve Sheinkin so I was looking forwarding to adding another favorite nonfiction author to the group but I was disappointed with Pamela Turner's book. I found it confusing and the writing dull. I think it would be the rare student that would stick with this book to the end. It did give me some insight into what it must be like to be an ELL reader since the names, locations and culture were so foreign that it made the reading choppy and a little frustrating. " said.

"First reviewed on Literaritea

What It Is: Biography

What It’s About: Twelfth century samurai Minamoto Yoshitsune’s turbulent life and the rise of the samurai culture. Yoshitsune was one of the early samurai to practice a ritual (and gory) suicide in order to avoid being captured by the enemy. But his life up until that point was no less peaceful. On the run from birth, he found refuge first in a monastery and later in wealthy estate before taking on a leadership role in his family. But as his family rose to power, strife between him and his brother, strife between their family and the opposing samurai family, and general instability in Japan meant for a gripping, action-packed, and often violent existence.

What Works: The pacing is excellent in this book–hard to put down! The prose is well done. Words like “probably” and “he might have…” help indicate where the author is making educated guesses based on her research of the time period and culture. Speaking of research…. fully 60 pages are end matter: chapter notes, author’s notes, timelines, glossary, index. This gal has done her homework!

What Doesn’t Work: For a biography, not much. Expertly crafted and researched, this is a terrific example of a biography. But in terms of a biography to “teach” or “inspire” character traits…this might not be the best choice. That’s the subject matter’s fault, though, not the author’s. She attempts to show ways in which Yoshitsune is honorable and treats his comrades with dignity, but a samurai is still a samurai. Violence is the answer.

What I Think/Recommend: If you are studying Medieval Japan with anyone eighth grade or older, this is a fantastic addition. Anyone simply interested in history and/or Japanese culture will also find this a riveting read. But be forewarned: as the back of the book states (accurately), a lot of people die in this book…. and most are NOT from natural causes. The author isn’t overly graphic in her descriptions, by any means. But the samurai solve all their problems with violence and the weapons of the day meant, aside from archery, the battles were up close and personal.

One final note: Yoshitsune’s consort gets good attention (and she was heroic in her own way!), but some families may wish to know this beforehand. There are no graphic scenes; the text merely mentions that the two are not married and, eventually, that she is carrying his child.

" said.

" Is Samurai Rising bad for America?

Taira leaders quickly decided that only "men of quality" would be allowed on the ships. Low-ranking samurai who tried to climb aboard by clutching the sides of the vessels had their arms slashed off, "and they ended as rows of corpses, reddening the water's edge at Ichi-no-Tani." (p. 72)

A teenaged boy stared up at him... The Minamoto warrior promised Atsumori he would offer prayers for the soothing of the boy's soul. Then, weeping, he killed the youth and sliced off his head. (p. 73)


Samurai Rising has been praised by many for breakneck pacing, rich nonfiction value, and that ever-elusive appeal to young male readers. It has been condemned by others for glorifying war atrocities.

It is true that Pamela S. Turner paints a dark and bloody portrait of a violent era. Page after page details graphic suicide, beheading, infanticide, and slaughter. I prefer it that way. In the epilogue, Turner states that Yoshitsune's legacy was glorified by samurai enthusiasts "after the bodies had decomposed." Throughout her narrative, she thrusts the undecomposed, bleeding corpses in front of us as an antidote to romance. This book is nothing more than accurate history, which is the best kind of history.

Newbery Considerations

Should Samurai Rising take the big medal? Is it "distinguished?" Somewhat. Turner does a yeoman's job of condensing 33 years of feudal civil wars in 163 pages. The narrative is clear and accessible. That's an achievement. On a style note, I found her anachronisms distracting. For example, she describes Yoshitsune as a "rockstar," which clashes with the atmosphere of the book.

Is it appropriate for the Newbery medal? If it wins, it will be the most violent winner ever, with the possible exception of the notorious Daniel Boone. The Medal goes up to age 14, and I would suggest this book for ages 13+, so it just squeaks under the wire. However, I would prefer a book with a broader age range for the big medal.

My final thought is, no, I still somewhat prefer Booked for the Medal, but in truth I am not enthusiastic about any of the six books I have read for the Newbery this year." said.

"I have heard some great things about Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune, including some Newbery buzz on Fuse #8, so I decided to check it out. It's touted as a "real-life A Game of Thrones," but for middle-grade plus. Well, I have neither read nor watched A Game of Thrones or anything in the Song of Ice and Fire series because it's just way too violent and rape-y for me, so I really can't compare it at all. But it's very interesting that this has a ton of violence in it (according to Fuse #8, the title page says "WARNING: Very few people in this story die of natural causes." I searched all over the book, and in Google Books, and couldn't find it, so must've just been specific to the review copy she received), but isn't really all that graphic. Anyway, there is a ton of murder and a little bit of seppuku the legendary samurai tradition (made famous by Yoshitsune, the titular samurai) of honor suicide, but it's nothing that a 5th grader couldn't handle.

I don't know much about samurai history/culture, so the story of Yoshitsune, Japan's most famous samurai, was new to me. I have recently been having some discussions about what makes a good nonfiction juvenile title. There are a lot of really great ones out there, and there are more and more that appeal beyond reference titles for school projects. I started thinking about author's notes, references, and the like. Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune has the perfect amount of back (and front) matter-not so much that it's overwhelming, but some really helpful and useful information in understanding the story. At the beginning is a list of characters and how to pronounce their names. At the end are all sorts of things, but I especially appreciated the note on women. Pamela Turner explains that women were rarely named back then, so it was very difficult to find information about the samurai's wives, mothers, and daughters. And the timeline was really interesting and fun. It talked about some other world events that were happening around the same time period, like Genghis Khan's rise to power or the construction of Angkor Wat.

Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune is punctuated with some great artwork by Gareth Hinds. It has a brush-stroke, Japanese look to it, appropriate for the story/text, of course. I would recommend this book to adventure and history fans.

Ages 11+
" said.

" "Few warriors are as famous as the Japanese samurai. We remember those beautiful swords and those fearsome helmets. We recall, with both horror and fascination, how some chose to end their own lives. But no one can understand the samurai without knowing Minamoto Yoshitsune."

Samurai warriors occupy an unusual space between actual history and the stuff of legend. Immortalized in countless books and films, these warriors are sensationalized and idealized but rarely studied as historical figures.

Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune (2016) by Pamela S. Turner, illustrated by Gareth Hinds works to correct that with this biography of the most famous samurai.

Yoshitsune's story begins in 1160 when his father tries to kidnap the Japanese Emperor and take more prestige and wealth for the Minamoto samurai by force. He fails thus forfeiting his life and placing his rival, the leader of the Taira samurai, in an influential position as the emperor's right hand. Yoshitsune avoids execution thanks to his mother's pleas and is instead exiled as a child at a monastery to become a monk.

As he grows older and learns more about his family's heritage Yoshitsune rejects that path, runs away from the monastery, learns the ways of the samurai, and sets out help his family reclaim their supposed birthright.

This story begins in 1160 when the Minamoto abduction of the emperor fails. Turner bridges the more than 850 years between Yoshitsune and readers with thorough research and a healthy dose of supposition.

Samurai Rising opens with a listing of key figures in the story along with name pronunciations and a short description of their relationship to Yoshitsune. Detailed maps show readers Japan as a whole as well as key battle site and strongholds that will turn up in the story. The text is further enhanced with illustrations from Gareth Hinds that appear at the beginning of each chapter showcasing samurai in action or detailed images of their various equipment. Turner finishes this book with copious footnotes about her research and the details she has chosen to include and interpret in this story.

This book can appeal to a wide range of ages. It's been discussed as a contender for both children's and young adult awards and was named a finalist for the Young Adult Library Services Association's (YALSA's) Non-Fiction Awards.

Samurai Rising reads very young. The narrative voice feels decidedly middle grade as does the snappy tone and the witty asides peppered throughout the text. Turner’s writing is filled with pat language and anachronistic analogies to better situated samurai life and culture in modern terms. (Example: Saying the “cool kids” of the Japanese ruling class saw the samurai as “dumb jocks” or comparing Yoshitsune showing up at the Hiraizumi estate asking for samurai training to a boy who has never been to Little League showing up for spring training with the Yankees.) This information will work for some readers. I was not one of them.

Aside from pulling me out of the story--because really, even as a historical biography this book is essentially a story--these comparisons often highlighted very specific assumptions Turner makes about who will be reading this book (sports enthusiasts, people with the cultural knowledge to know the Yankees, readers familiar with the stereotypical social hierarchy of high school . . .). Seeing these assumptions at play is intensely irritating as it creates the effect of talking down to readers and, for me, placing me as firmly not within the target audience (which is okay, that happens when adults read YA but it could easily happen for kids and teens outside of the target area as well).

Writing issues aside, Samurai Rising is also a book that glorifies violence and war and doesn't look to closely at the implications of writing a history about the "winning" side of this samurai battle. Why are the Minamoto the heroes? Why is violence and death acceptable within the ceremony of samurai culture? Turner never really says. I don't have the background in Japanese history to say much of anything but I will point you to Leonard Kim's review which raises a lot of these questions and points out some of the inherent flaws in this viewpoint.

The scope of Samurai Rising and the subject matter is especially impressive given the relative dearth of textual evidence from the time. Turner takes on a lot here and she successfully breathes life into Yoshitsune's story making it engaging and approachable for readers. Whether or not that is a good thing is a matter open to interpretation and discussion.
If you want to hear more thoughts about Samurai Rising be sure to check out Sarah Couri's review on Someday My Printz Will Come and the discussion in the comments on Heavy Medal as well. Leonard Kim's review should also be required reading about this book.

Possible Pairings: The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb, The Samurai's Tale by Erik Christian Haugaard, The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin, Rurouni Kenshin by Nobuhiro Watsuki
" said.

" It is written for a younger audience with plenty of commentary and bravado, but still pretty good. " said.

"I am reviewing this very objectivey, as I am not really an avid reader of nonfiction.
I picked this up because it was on the list of 2017-2018 Florida Teens Read list.
It was in general well written, and fairly easy to follow along until the very end, where I think it was simply my interest in the book completely faded and I couldn't stay focused.
I liked the inclusion of maps and the "pictures" at the beginning of each chapter.
Personally I think calling it an "epic" life is very subjective, as after do finishing the book I really am not sure if I would call it an epic life, but it does make for an enticing title.
It was not bad, it just wasn't my type of book.
" said.

"If you're writing a nonfiction book about a twelfth century samurai, most of your source material will be military record. This should have occurred to me, but it didn't prior to starting this book. It was very well written, and beautifully illustrated by Gareth Hinds, but it was lacking the kind of detail that makes history interesting to me. Turner did an amazing job of sticking to the facts while filling them in with narrative and what she could surmise, but unfortunately, I just didn't really care. This is a me problem, not the book, so if the topic is interesting to you, please pick this one up." said.

September 2018 New Book:

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