3.5 stars. A rich, character-driven m/m romance about a yakuza underboss and an American artist who fall for each other and struggle with some of the challenges that derive from the different worlds they live in.
I thought this was a strong book, and I enjoyed most of it, but there were two factors that made it difficult for me to recommend this book in the end.
The parts that I liked:
- Even though Shigure, the yakuza, and Ken (Kenshin) the artist "hook up" very early, their relationship develops slowly over the first half of the book. I really enjoyed watching this development as they learn more about each other and what makes the other tick. It was well-written and a very engaging story.
- The characters were interesting and multi-faceted, and the dialogue was very good, especially between the MCs. At first when I started, I wondered if this would simply be a "yaoi novel," due to the setting, and if it would be filled with the tropes better used in a manga, but no, this read like a much richer novel with strong characterization and development.
I especially liked the character of Kenshin. He's fiercely independent and driven while at the same time enjoys spacing out to watch the world from his artist viewpoint. I found him to be very sympathetic, and I appreciated the common struggle that both he and Shigure experienced growing up and living as outsiders in Japanese society.
- Having studied in Japan, I also liked the many details about the country the author used. Nothing stuck out as "false,' and she did a great job of painting the setting, mood, and overall mannerisms that you see a lot in Japan. If she used Japanese for character dialogue, she also made sure to stealthily insert the English meaning without spelling it out directly. (I understand thought that these parts might have been easier for me to decipher because I did have the background.)
What was hard for me was:
The section of extreme violence and torture that goes on for about a quarter of the book, interspersed between the 50%-75% mark. Before reading this, I had read some reviews about the violence, and had a) assumed that it wouldn't be that bad and b) assumed that it would be more similar to the "yakuza violence" you see in Japanese gangster films--guns, punching, beating, someone loses a pinky finger, etc. And yes, some of that is there, but for me, the violence is way worse than I imagined, and it's more akin to the depraved, intense violence you see in a serial killer story, including sexual torture, and that was very hard to read, especially for such a long part of the book.
At times, the author tried to soften the perspective by having the scene come from an observer rather than from the victim, but I found that perspective just as hard to read, and it's very drawn out, and got worse and worse. We kept returning back to the this extended torture section, and I kept thinking, maybe this will end soon, but no, it continued for 25% of the book, and the book is over 300 pages.
In the end, I basically had to skim this whole quarter of the book, including the parts here where the other characters were looking for those that were being tortured. (Those scenes also felt overly drawn out, but that might also have been the stress of wanting the torture section to stop in general.)
I appreciate that this section really reveals the inner strength and determination of the characters that were tortured, but I do think it was too much, and tonally very different from the first half of the book. I wish the writer had softened or removed some of the violence and shortened this section. At times, this part reminded me of those fanfics that focus a lot on "character abuse" and I think that you probably could have eliminated some of the torture without losing the point---the anger and depravity of the assailant, the resilience and coming together of the victims, etc.
Even though the last quarter of the book deals with the aftermath of this section, the healing, and the HEA, skimming a huge section like that made it harder for me to sink into the book again, and I didn't feel that deeper reading experience that I had for the first half of the story. I missed that deeper feeling, and I wished I hadn't been kicked out so violently in the middle.
The other factor that bothered me is that the author is a very good writer, but would repeatedly use descriptive nouns/titles to describe characters as they thought about each other. (e.g. The Yakuza, the Foreigner, the Japanese, the gaijin, the American, etc.) Some of it worked, like near the end, Shigure started thinking of Kenshin as "his gaijin" but I wished a lot of these had been replaced by either names or pronouns. It was sometimes harder to sink into a scene between two characters who already knew each other intimately, but still kept using the titles of "the American" or "the yakuza" in their thoughts or in the description of what the characters were doing. This habit rang of "early author" to me, which stood out in comparison to how well-written the rest of the book was.
So, overall, I really enjoyed the first half, and the last quarter was good, but it was harder to return to the book after the very violent middle.
I am thankful though because I now have a way better idea of what kind of violence I can take. Since this book crossed the line for me, when faced with another book that includes extreme violence, I can now ask, "How violent? Is it equal to or worse than Yakuza Pride? How equal? Is it 25% of the book-equal?" If it is equal or worse, I now know that I should pass on it.