Readers who enjoy intricate novels of the Cold War espionage community, set against an historical background and involving many interweaving plotlines, should find ‘Satori’ an absolute delight. It is most definitely NOT an action-adventure shoot-em-up story. It is, however a tough book to review. Many readers will compare it to ‘Shibumi’, while others who haven’t read Trevanian’s original novel will be confused when they encounter the main characters and plot of ‘Satori’. I’ll try to shed some light on the subject without giving too much of a fabulous plot away…
‘Satori’ combines the cultural heritage of Japanese society with Buddhist influences, set amid the oppressive menace of 1950’s Maoist China and the bubbling chaos of Vietnam. In the midst of all this a fledgling assassin must fulfil a near-impossible mission to win his freedom, avoiding traps set by competing CIA officers, various guerrilla groups, the Chinese secret police, and even the mafia. Oh, and there’s the ongoing concept of life as the Japanese board game of Go; a beautiful, deadly woman; a weird martial art; the assassin’s near-supernatural ability to sense people; a cracking casino scene; gun running; a dwarf who provides intel; and a sprawl of tangled plot threads and twists set against a solid background of old-fashioned tradecraft.
You have to suspend a little disbelief in order to enjoy ‘Satori’ to the full. The whole point of Nicholai Hel, the central character, is that he has near-superhuman abilities. In his later life he becomes a legend in the intelligence community; ‘Satori’ is the story of part of his evolution towards becoming the perfect assassin. It also helps if the readers has an inclination towards Eastern rituals, philosophy and culture. Hel’s strengths come from his Japanese background, so the inclusion of tea rituals, Go scenarios and a discussion of the concept of Satori (meaning = understanding, or a glimpse of one’s true self) are a vital part of this book’s backbone.
Don Winslow is a world class thriller writer and he took on an immense challenge with this book. He has written into the framework of an existing universe, one created by Trevanian some 30 years ago, and has had to fit the timeline, character of Hel and his supporting cast into that reality – as well as matching actual historical events in the 1950s in Asia when the action in ‘Satori’ takes place.
The result is remarkable; an eminently readable and enjoyable espionage novel which both involves and challenges the reader. Winslow’s attention to historical detail is compelling, but it’s accompanied by a relentless plot which drives the reader onwards. One moment you might be considering the plumbing in an hotel in Communist China; the next you’re wondering how the hero will escape torture when strapped to a chair and facing emasculation by cheesewire…
I adored ‘Satori’. It helps that I like Winslow’s writing (especially ) and read ‘Shibumi’ many moons ago, too. In fact, I went back and re-read ‘Shibumi’ to set myself up for ‘Satori’, and I was surprised by how dated and hectoring the original novel feels these days. For the modern reader, ‘Satori’ is far more accessible and enjoyable.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Satori by Don Winslow is available in various formats from Amazon