James Clavell

Book cover

This is the sequel to Shogun, which I read about a year ago (just before starting Goodreads!) and greatly enjoyed. A friend told me I would like it because it was about the founding of Hong Kong and “the good old days when finance was conducted with cannons.” That indeed is a good description of the plot, but I would say that Tai-Pan fell well short of Shogun, and I’m not in a hurry to read any of the further sequels.

I often said about Shogun that I could barely stand how bad the writing was (think cheesy Dan Brown style, but set in the 17th century), but I couldn’t put it down because the plot was so great. The same was pretty much true of Tai-Pan, but I didn’t get into the plot as much. I think that’s largely because the plots of the two books are quite similar–“heroic Westerner gets himself involved in an Eastern culture and claws his way to the top.” Also, one of the main things I liked about Shogun was the existence of Toranaga as a strong foil to Blackthorne, temperamentally and culturally quite different, but an equal if not a superior in terms of intellect and power. Tai-Pan lacked that, with everyone playing second fiddle to Struan.

I thought, while reading Tai-Pan: this is what a right-wing book looks like. I haven’t read any Ayn Rand (yet), but in several passages I thought the writing was similar to what I would expect from her: glorifying Struan’s solitary quest for power, and his inability to form any strong relationships because of that. Struan is an opium trader, but the book only provides the lightest intimations that there might be anything wrong with that. Although I believe Clavell is very meticulous in getting the historical detail of China (Japan in Shogun) right, he’s also unpleasantly Orientalist at times. If I recall correctly, both Shogun and Tai-Pan have scenes where the Westerner, who has taken an Eastern mistress, is “forced” to abuse her because that is what is “culturally demanded”, and then of course that pleasantly resolves everything and they have sex.

My Goodreads rating: 2 stars