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Literature / The Initiate Brother

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The Initiate Brother is a duology of books by Sean Russell. It focuses on a Fantasy Counterpart Culture of East Asia, blending elements of China and Japan, and deals with the response to a barbarian invasion (mostly focusing on the internal politics and near civil war that results). The titular character is a monk who may or may not be the great Teacher his religion tells of, but there's a wide cast of characters besides him.

The first book, called The Initiate Brother, was released in 1991, and the continuation, Gatherer of Clouds, was released the following year. More recently, they have been released as a single volume.

This duology provides examples of:

  • Corrupt Church: Both the two main Botahist orders - the Brotherhood and the Sisterhood - fall short of what they should be. The Brothers are often more interested in protecting their order's political power and influence than in doing good, positioning "spiritual advisors" (i.e. manipulators and spies) with as many ruler as possible. The Sisters don't have similar power, but are riven by infighting, factionalism, and personal ambition. Part of Shuyun's job serving the Teacher will presumably involve spreading a more genuine version of the religion - aided by the original scrolls of Botahara, which non-corrupt Brothers have been gradually smuggling away from Jinjoh Monastery for that purpose.
  • Cousinly Rivalry: Nishima and Kitsura are fond of each other and their relationship is generally quite warm, but Okara tells them that they often subtly and maybe even unconsciously compete with each other all the time. Kitsura's seductive behaviour towards Shuyun (whom she isn't really all that interested in) after guessing that Nishima likes him is probably an example.
  • The Chosen One: Many followers of the Botahist religion believe that there will eventually come a great Teacher. When the sign spoken of in prophecy occurs, people naturally start looking for him, and some people wonder if the protagonist, Shuyun, will be revealed to be this person. Shuyun himself isn't certain. Eventually, it turns out that he isn't - it's another character who has been mentioned throughout the story but not seen until the very end. Shuyun is, however, the person who will bring the Teacher's work to the world.
  • Crisis of Faith:
    • Sister Tesseko believes that Sister Morima is having one of these, since in her illness, Morima raves about lies and the scrolls of Botahara being wrong. In fact, Morima is only rejecting the Brotherhood's claim that they showed her the real scrolls - it's the Brothers she doubts, not the the original writer.
    • Tesseko herself suffers a crisis of faith due to conflicting opinions about Brother Shuyun - she thinks he might be the Teacher, but she disapproves of his growing relationship with Lady Nishima (which would contradict his Vow of Celibacy).
  • Every Scar Has a Story: It's not specified how the steward Kamu lost his arm, but he says it led to him being who he is:
    Kamu: Patience was not something I learned in my youth, Empress, it grew slowly as the years passed. Thus it was that, in my younger years, I fought more duels than perhaps even Lord Komawara. [gestures to his missing arm] Here is my great teacher of patience, Empress, otherwise I may have been too foolish by nature to have ever acquired this most valuable of traits.
  • Far East: The setting is, by authorial intent, a blend of Japan and China.
    • The geography is similar to China: a large continental country with ocean to the east, sparsely-populated wilds to the north, east-west rivers, and a north-south grand canal.
    • Personal names are mostly Japanese-sounding.
    • The political system is similar to imperial China, with a succession of dynasties (rather than a single sustained-but-sometimes-sidelined one, as in Japan).
    • Clothing and armour seem to be basically Japanese.
  • Divided We Fall: Emperor Akantsu won't send forces to help against the barbarians, believing that Lord Shonto is disloyal and is exaggerating the threat as an excuse to build up an army. Inverted and/or subverted, though, since Shonto ends up pursuing Divided We Stand: he encourages these fears of rebellion, figuring that if he can't convince the Emperor to raise an army against the barbarians, he can still convince the Emperor to raise an army against him, and it's better the army is prepared for the wrong reason than not prepared at all. Shonto then agrees to surrender his "rebel" army so that the Emperor can meet the barbarians with a joint force - although in fact, the Emperor screws it up.
  • False Flag Operation: Apparently a favoured tactic of Jaku Katta, the Emperor's guard commander. Some are small incidents - arranging for Lord Shonto to be attacked at home and Lady Nishima to be detained while travelling, in both cases allowing him to come to their "rescue" and win their trust. He tries a bigger one when he arranges an attack on Shonto's army in the expectation that the his boss the Emperor will be blamed for it, hoping to exploit the resulting outrage. However, it falls apart when the attack fails miserably and the Emperor finds out what he was up to.
  • Genius Blind Man: Myochin, although blind, is a master at the game of gii, and more broadly, at strategy in general.
  • Head-in-the-Sand Management: A major problem. Emperor Akantsu refuses to accept that the barbarian incursion (which he secretly invited) has actually turned out to be a full-scale invasion. As the barbarian army advances through the empire, he insists that it's small and insignificant - you see, the forces retreating ahead of the barbarians are rebels, and are only pretending to be fleeing as an excuse to advance towards him. He sends first his guard commander and then his son to deal with the situation, and they both tell him that the barbarian threat is real, but he won't listen, interpreting their attempts to cooperate with Lord Shonto in defence of the empire as simply more treason. He does eventually see the truth, but is defeated and killed without ever accepting any responsibility for being so catastrophically wrong.
  • Heel–Face Turn: It's the subject of debate between characters as to whether or not Jaku Katta, formerly the Emperor's guard commander, has really joined them or not. Is he really with the good guys because the barbarian invasion is real, or does he just have nowhere to go after the Emperor figured out his disloyalty? Is he really courting Nishima out of genuine interest, or is it just her imperial bloodline he wants?
  • Heir-In-Law: Nishima is not only the most visible heir to the previous imperial dynasty, she's the ward of a powerful lord who is not on good terms with the current one. As such, she's an obvious focus for discontent, and the general assumption is that whoever marries her will be put forward as a challenger to the Emperor with her lineage as an excuse. By the end of the story, Nishima has actually become Empress in her own right, unmarried.
  • Hooked Up Afterwards: A poem at the end of the book indicates that sometime after the end, Lord Komawara becomes consort to Nishima (now Empress Shigei). Given their lack of a romantic relationship during the course of the book, it's probably political, since Shuyun (who Nishima does have a relationship with) wouldn't be considered suitable even if they do meet up again.
  • Impoverished Patrician: While not broke, the Komawara family is far below its former status (having once rivalled the power of the emperor). Komawara Samyamu, the young lord who now rules the house, is ambitious to restore it to its former glory, and is derided for this by some of his fellow aristocrats. Lord Shonto tries to send some profitable business Komawara's way, although Komawara refuses to accept any terms he considers to be charity. He does end up as an important ally to Lord Shonto, nevertheless. A poem at the very end indicates that he eventually becomes consort to the Empress.
  • Inadequate Inheritor: Emperor Akantsu considers his son Wakaro to be one of these - perhaps wrongly, since Wakaro eventually wises up considerably more than his father (and is rewarded by being executed as a traitor). Lord Shonto, in contrast, has a reasonably good relationship with his son Shokan, who is left behind to govern Shonto lands and eventually inherits them.
  • Native Guide: When they go north into barbarian lands, Shuyun and Komawara capture one of the locals, Kalam. A deal is struck in which Kalam agrees to guide them, and he later returns with them to the empire.
  • The Matchmaker: Nishima and Kitsura teasingly threaten to find partners for each other while denying any need for it themselves. One of Nishima's attendants agrees, and believes in the need to strike first:
    Kento: She will be searching for a consort for you even as we speak. This is self-defense.
  • My Master, Right or Wrong: Jaku Tadamoto stays rigidly loyal to Emperor Akantsu, even though he increasingly sees that Akantsu is both petty and incompetent. This brings Tadamoto into conflict with his brother, whose loyalty was rather less durable.
  • Overly Polite Pals: A non-comedic use. Due to the high value placed on politeness and courtesy, it's common for people to be this with their friends (or even non-friends). Lord Shonto sometimes gets tired of it, especially when there are more important things to be doing.
    Shonto [thinking]: We are at war - there is no time to sit and drink wine and fabricate lies about the great esteem our ancestors felt for each other.
  • The Plague: The setting occasionally suffers from a plague - the Botahist Brotherhood is able to cure it, but the enemy invasion force (which catches it) lacks similar means. Brother Shuyun wants to offer the invaders help if they'll agree to leave, but the Brotherhood's leadership refuses. Shiyun then teaches the cure to the more cooperative Botahist Sisterhood instead, and is cast out of the Brotherhood for it. The invaders aren't unanimously convinced that help is necessary, and two factions fight a lot before the survivors mostly accept.
  • Poisoned Chalice Switcheroo: Unusually, the cups are being switched by the poisoner so as to poison himself. Kogami Norimasa is given non-negotiable orders to poison Shuyun under guise of sharing a drink, but because Shuyun cured his daughter, he doesn't want to. He therefore ensures that it's him who ends up with the cup he knows contains poison, leaving Shuyun alive and himself beyond his master's retribution.
  • Posthumous Character: For a while, it seems as though Brother Satake, who was Shuyun's predecessor, is one of these. In fact, he's revealed to be still alive at the end - and considerably more important than any of the characters who mention him understood, since he's the Teacher whom the Botahists have been waiting.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Prince Wakaro eventually turns out to be one of these. He's very arrogant to start with, but once he sees that Lord Shonto is telling the truth about the barbarian invasion, he realises that he's out of his depth and seeks advice from his officers (who confirm it's really as bad as it looks). Thereafter, he defers to Shonto's advice, and is as helpful as can be. It gets him killed, since his father the Emperor is most certainly not a reasonable authority figure, and wants to punish "betrayal" even when it's clear the so-called traitors were telling the truth.
  • Reclusive Artist: An In-Universe example in the painter Okara, who isn't really very interested in socialising at court despite being celebrated there (calling imperial parties "social dog fights"). She therefore isn't thrilled at being awarded an Imperial Patronage, which the Emperor thinks will keep Okara (and, more to the political point, Okara's noble-born apprentice) confined in the capital. The Emperor is wrong, however - Okara decides that she can do her job just as well touring the empire looking to capture it in her work.
  • Reincarnation Romance / Together in Death: Shuyun's duty to go and serve the Teacher requires him to part from Nishima, and he tells her that he doesn't know whether or not they'll meet again in this life. He does, however, say that "Beyond the future lies a future in which we cannot be separated."
  • Royal Blood: In addition to the current imperial family, there's also Nishima, a descendant of the previous dynasty. It's remarked that she has "too much of the old Imperial blood for her own good" - anyone who marries her can thereafter use the restoration of her dynasty as a pretext for rebellion, so the current Emperor is bound want her either safely married to one of his own sons or else eliminated.
  • Sacred Scripture: The Scrolls of Botahara, in the keeping of the Botahist Brotherhood. There are numerous copies, but the original scrolls have gone missing, leading them to show fakes to Sister Morima of the Botahist Sisterhood. Their fate is only revealed at the very end of the story, by which time it is apparent that the Brotherhood isn't what it should be - brothers who keep to the true way have been slowly smuggling the scrolls away to safety.
  • Secondary Character Title: To start with, the titular initiate brother may be important to the plot, but he's in the background quite a bit and doesn't get too many point-of-view chapters. If not for the book's title, readers might not necessarily know that other characters (Shonto, Komawara, Nishima...) aren't of equal or greater importance. The second book gives us more from Shuyun's point of view, though, and brings his religious significance to the fore.
  • Taking You with Me: Osha, the Emperor's dancer and concubine, believes that her real love has been killed in the Emperor's bungled war and that she herself has little chance of surviving. Having nothing left to lose, she pushes the Emperor off a balcony while going over herself.
  • The Starscream: Emperor Akantsu's guard captain and chief advisor, Jaku Katta, is plotting against him. Katta plans to launch an attack on Lord Shonto which will be blamed on the Emperor, creating dissent among other noble houses which Katta might then exploit. It goes wrong and the Emperor finds out (in part due to Katta having something of disloyal lieutenant himself in the form of his brother, Jaku Tadamoto). Katta ends up working alongside Shonto, which the Emperor interprets as a continuation of Katta's attempt to seize the throne (and that might be part of it, although Katta also realises by then that Shonto is right about there being a greater problem).
  • Thicker Than Water: Two "betrayals" cause characters particular grief because they come from family members.
    • When Jaku Katta's grand plans to usurp his boss unravel, he is particularly upset to learn of the role played by his brother and right hand, Jaku Tadamoto. Tadamoto sees it a bit differently, and the relationship between the two is complicated. Katta allies himself (sort of) with Lord Shonto, while Tadamoto stays loyal-to-a-fault to the Emperor. They eventually come face to face again as Katta tries to storm the palace, but Tadamoto ends up (unsuccessfully) defending Katta from a revenge attack by troops on Katta's own side who remember Katta's actions before he joined Shonto.
    • Emperor Akantsu takes it pretty badly when his son, Prince Wakaro, joins forces with Lord Shonto rather than arresting him. As is silently noted by the other character present, however, it's a bit rich for Akantsu to gripe about familial betrayal when his main reason for sending Wakaro in the first place was the hope that he'd get killed shortly after accomplishing his task (being deemed an Inadequate Inheritor).
  • The Unseen: Brother Satake, who was Lord Shonto's spiritual advisor before Shuyun got the post, is this until the very end. He is commented on by various characters who knew him, having been considered rather unorthodox for a Botahist brother (and having illicitly taught Nishima certain Botahist techniques). It's never clearly stated what happened to him, but readers might easily think he's a Posthumous Character. However, at the very end of the story, Shuyun goes to find the Teacher, and confirms his guess that the Teacher is in fact Brother Satake.
  • Typhoid Mary: When the barbarian invaders appear, The Plague is spread to their ranks by Shimeko, former Botahist Sister who is having something of a Crisis of Faith. It's debated by other characters whether or not she filled this role knowingly, though the fact that she was a healer suggests she'd have to have realised it.
  • Undying Loyalty: Kalam, a northerner, has this towards Lord Komawara as a result of his people's customs.
  • Uriah Gambit: Emperor Akantsu, deeming Lord Shonto a threat to his throne, assigns him to a border province and secretly encourages barbarians to invade it. The hope is that even if Shonto survives, his inevitable defeat will permanently discredit him. He later throws in his treacherous ex-lieutenant and then his "useless" son, just for good measure. The problem is, the barbarians arrive in much greater force than Akantsu expects (perhaps having noted well that the empire is not too big on the whole "unity" concept). They nearly conquer the empire.
  • Vow of Celibacy: As a Botahist monk, Brother Shuyun is supposed to be celibate, which would get in the way of his developing relationship with Nishima. However, both Shuyun and Nishima are aware of older versions of the religion which accepted or even encouraged a sexual dimension to religious life, and Shuyun eventually decides that they were right.
  • When All You Have Is a Hammer…: General Hojo, when asked to make a decision, says that as a soldier, he might not be the best person to decide it.
    Hojo: Soldiers will always make decisions with a sword. It is our way, but there are other ways.