I don’t think I could have chosen a better book for our Reading Challenge Month Around the World category than Yakuza Pride by H.J. Brues. This was an incredible novel steeped in Japanese culture that not only entertained, but gave me a deeper appreciation for the amount of research this author had to do in order to deliver such an intricate view of this unknown way of life. That life I’m referring to is the Yakuza—read Japanese mafia. I was all ready to learn about and hopefully grow in my limited area of understanding the way of thinking inherent in the Japanese culture, but to also be exposed to how the hierarchy of thug life and business practices happen in that country was really fascinating. All of this information was wrapped up in a story that kept me on the edge of my seat and nearly gutted me a time or two, particularly when the torture of one of the main characters was related to us by an observer.
I am not sure a trigger warning is necessary here, but please do be aware that there are a few descriptive passages that are extremely difficult to read. They are critical to the plot and not labored over at all, but there was a time or two when I had to put this novel down to draw a breath—I admittedly do not deal with reading about torture very well so please take that statement for what it’s worth. However, lest I mislead you by that caution—this novel was outstanding. I was caught up in it immediately and despite the glut of various customs and the introduction of language references that occasionally made me struggle, I devoured this story from beginning to end.
Shigure Matsunaga is a yakuza underboss—he leads a cadre of men who are responsible for keeping peace with a rival gang as both groups fight to delineate their turf and keep the money flowing to their own bosses. Well aware of his impoverished upbringing and how it reflects poorly on him, the fact is that if he were not as powerful as he was, Shigure would be nothing more than a street rat others trampled underfoot. Despite that, he appreciates fine art and is constantly at war with his own sense of rigid pride when it comes to both his appearance and his stature in the criminal world. Much like most of his compatriots, Shigure also has little respect for the gaijin (foreigners), so imagine his surprise when he meets illustration artist Ken Harris and finds himself immediately drawn to the small, blond American. Ken is fluent in Japanese, having spent many years in the country as a youngster and now returned, visiting a school friend. When he and Shigure meet there is an instant spark—a deep and surprising lust for each other that slowly morphs into something more for both men, but while Ken is willing to show his respect and feelings for Shigure, the same response is not quite that easy for Shigure.
Loving another man in the Japanese culture is not necessarily frowned upon, but loving a gaijin who appears to be weak and feminine is. On top of that, Shigure is continually made aware of how his men view his growing dependence on Ken with disdain, yet when he invites the young American over to engage in a bout of kendo (martial arts), he and the others are amazed at Ken’s agility and expertise. Slowly, grudgingly Ken earns their respect—something not freely or easily given by the Japanese.
However not everyone approves of Shigure’s growing attachment to his gaijin and when Ken goes missing, it is a race against time to discover who is to blame. All clues point to the rival gang, Daito-Kai, but when Shigure confronts their boss he is informed that Ken’s abduction is not their doing. If he is to find Ken alive, Shigure must act fast for the delivery of a small brown package puts a chilling fear in his heart that his lover may not survive.
There were so many layers to this novel—the long standing ceremony with which the gangs interact, the loyalty of an underboss to his men and vice versa, and the idea that Shigure would flaunt his relationship with a gaijin in a society where his own footing was always unstable and his every action watched by his own superiors. To understand how his pride played an intricate part in why Ken was abducted was critical in understanding this story. There was almost a cultural shame to dating a foreigner. To dally with them—use them for sex and even do business with them was more than acceptable, but to fall in love—put them on the same level as your own countrymen—that was frowned upon most assuredly.
Because Shigure had fought to be better than his upbringing—one which labeled him as little more than the scum of society, he could not bring himself to acknowledge his growing love for Ken for it would prove to be a chink in his armor that kept him on top of the heap. Yet, that deep connection held him fast and tethered him to the American man. It would be this pride coupled with his lack of assuring Ken’s standing among his own men that would lead to the horrors that befall Ken in this story.
There is so much to love about this novel. The intimacy between the two men and the incredibly hot, sometimes brutal, moments of passion and sex that resulted were breathtaking. There is never any doubt that Ken needs Shigure like he needs air to breath. The gentle interactions, though rare, Shigure has with his lover—those most tender seconds that lock down the love they feel for each other are like small gems scattered throughout a fast-paced action thriller that is decidedly violent and deadly. The constant yet careful unlocking of cultural norms and prejudices gave such breadth to this story.
I began to understand a centuries-old way of thinking that informed every action taken by Shigure and his men. Ken’s grasp on how intricately the past was woven with the present day of living for this race of people helped him understand why his lover used his pride as a shield—and, yes, as a way to avoid entanglements with a person who was not of Japanese birth. But time and again, Ken found ways to break down the walls that Shigure held in place as a way to survive the crushing shame he still felt about his own upbringing. It is not an easy thing to reach beyond the class system that is held so rigidly in Japanese society—Shigure survives by being the best at what he does despite it being criminal in nature.
All these various components of love, envy and violence are intertwined in an outstanding story by author H.J. Brues that keeps you involved to the very end. Yakuza Pride is an excellent novel—a glimpse into the hidden criminal underbelly of Japan and a window into its culture that never ceased to fascinate and entertain. Quite simply, this novel took my breath away and I highly recommend it to you.
This review is part of our September Reading Challenge Month for Around the World Challenge Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win a fabulous prize from Riptide Publishing. One lucky winner will receive a selection of print Advanced Review Copies of Riptide books before they are even released (non-US winners will get ebook copies upon release instead). Commenters will also be entered to win our amazing grand prize sponsored by Dreamspinner Press (a loaded Kindle fire filled with DSP books!). You can get more information on our Challenge Month here, and more details on Around the World Challenge Week here. And be sure to check out our prize post for more about the awesome prizes!
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.