James Clavell’s novels ranked

Which James Clavell novels are the “best”? And which ones should you read first?

James Clavell (1921 -1994) was an author of adventure/suspense novels set in Asia. His Asian Saga consists of a group of six novels. These books feature overlapping characters, and a fictional trading company, Noble House:

King Rat (1962)
Tai-Pan (1966)
Shōgun (1975)
Noble House (1981)
Whirlwind (1986)
Gai-Jin (1993)

What are these books about?

Good question. Here is a (very) brief explanation of each:

King Rat

Set in Changi Prison (in Singapore) during WWII, this is Clavell’s first novel. At around 400 pages, it is also Clavell’s shortest novel.

King Rat is semi-autobiographical. Clavell himself was a POW of the Japanese during WWII, and was interned in Changi Prison.

Tai-Pan

This is the story of Dirk Struan, the founder of the Noble House trading company. This story takes place during the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century.

Shōgun

Shōgun is the tale of a British navigator who crashes on Japanese shores around the year 1600. He becomes involved in the unification of feudal Japan.

Clavell borrows heavily from Japanese history in Shōgun. This isn’t exactly a historical novel, though, as Clavell modifies names and dates to suit his story. 

The real history involved here is the biography of Anjin Miura (William Adams), a British navigator who really did shipwreck on Japanese shores during a typhoon. Another real historical inspiration for Shōgun is the story of Japan’s unification under the Tokugawa Shogunate during the early 1600s.

But once again…Shōgun is fiction inspired by history, not a historical novel. There is a big difference!

Noble House 

In Hong Kong in the early 1960s, Ian Dunross is the CEO—or tai-pan—of Dirk Struan’s Noble House (which, in the mid-20th century, has become a multinational trading firm).

Noble House is a huge novel, weighing in at about 1,300 pages. The book is filled with gangsters, bold business executives, and seductive women.

I enjoyed reading Noble House. I also enjoyed watching the 1988 NBC miniseries adaptation, starring Pierce Brosnan and Deborah Raffin.

Whirlwind

Easily the darkest of Clavell’s novels, Whirlwind is set in Iran in 1979, at the height of the Islamic Revolution.

Clavell is sometimes criticized for his “orientalism”: All of his books to some extent pander to Western fantasies about Asia. In Clavell’s novels, every Chinese merchant is an ultra-savvy trader who simultaneously plays a dozen different angles. Asian women are all sloe-eyed embodiments of submissive femininity.

In his books about China and Japan, however, Clavell openly admires the cultures he depicts, even if some of his depictions seem simplistic or politically incorrect to “progressive” twenty-first century readers. If Clavell stereotypes the cultures of Japan and China, he does so with the intent to praise, not belittle.

Clavell clearly does not admire Iranian culture, or the culture of Islam, however. While not all of the Iranian characters in Whirlwind are scoundrels and fanatics, many of them are. 

Make of that what you will. But there is no denying that Whirlwind has a different tone than Clavell’s other books. 

Gai-Jin

This was the last novel Clavell completed before his death in 1994. Gai-Jin takes place in Japan in 1862, as the country is struggling with new forces of westernization.

Do you have to read them in order?

No. The novels of the Asian Saga do not have to be read sequentially. Each one is a more or less self-contained story. You can read them in any order you choose without missing much.

So…which one is the “best” then?…And which one should you read first?

Tai-pan and Shōgun are generally regarded to be the “best” books of the Asian Saga. 

In this case, I have to agree with the general consensus (a relatively rare occurrence for me). BothTai-pan and Shōgun are readily accessible to the first-time reader, long enough to be satisfying, but still page-turners.

You might start with either of these.

King Rat is a good novel, but it’s also a small story set in a very narrow environment. 

Oh—and no female characters to speak of. If you aren’t interested in an all-male story set in a WWII prison camp, you might not like this one as much as Clavell’s bigger novels. 

King Rat is, as I mentioned, semi-autobiographical. This was obviously a story that Clavell wanted to tell, needed to tell—and he tells it superbly. But it is a narrowly set story. 

One of the themes of King Rat is the necessity of adapting your ideals to the realities of an often cruel and unforgiving world. I read this book when I was nineteen going on twenty, just making the transition from late adolescence to full adulthood. Many of the book’s insights were useful to me at that time, and they are still with me today.

I would recommend that you do read King Rat; but I strongly recommend that you read it after you read Tai-Pan and Shōgun, and you have a full appreciation for Clavell’s work.

Noble House, Whirlwind, and Gai-jin are good books, but for James Clavell “completists” only.

(I’m a James Clavell completist, so I read all three.)

Each of these books is over 1,000 pages. I mean—come on! If a book is over 1,000 pages, it had better be awesome, right? 

These books are good, but they aren’t “awesome”. Noble House is the best of the three. Both Whirlwind and Gai-jin have a tendency to drag in the middle. Whirlwind in particular has too many characters, too many subplots. 

I came to these three novels after reading Tai-pan, Shōgun, and King Rat. Had I started with Gai-jin, for example, I don’t think I would have been motivated to continue with Clavell’s fiction.

Anyway, such is my assessment of the Asian Saga.

I think you’ll love this series—especially if you like the idea of historical suspense set in Asia. But do yourself a favor, and start with either Tai-pan or Shogun.