So you think you know samurai? Think again. Whether you're Japanese or Other, your knowledge of Japan's fabled warrior class is likely based more upon years of pop culture misinformation than upon solid historical fact. And while we all love TV's _Shogun_ (my Japanese aunt owns the series and watches it yearly), James Clavell's depiction of the samuai of medieval Japan is geared more towards entertainment than education.
_A Brief History of the Samurai: A New History of the Warrior Elite_ by Jonathan Clements is more or less the opposite -- an accurate education on the origin and history of the samurai, cleverly disguised as entertainment. In its concise 300 pages, the book presents you with Clements' oceanic knowledge of the ways and workings of medieval Japan while avoiding the sort of dry, textbook prose that you might find in other books on the topic. Clements' lucid prose first paints in the background of Japanese history in brief, clear strokes, allowing you to picture the rise of Japan's warrior ethos from its occult origins in Nippon's pre-historic era to the era of the shogun. He then draws in the portraits of the famous samurai of history in flowing lines of narrative taken from the source documents of Japan's history.
And Clements gives you that history with all its ambiguity and bite, not the sanitized soft tofu of popular entertainment. His tales of martial prowess and chivalric derring-do are enjoyably readable, yet clear-eyed. As a nipponophile, Clements' makes no attempt to hide his love for the color and pomp of Japan's warring clans; as a scholar (and an honest man), he presents you with the poisonous chauvinism of medieval Japanese culture, the conquest and assimilation of the Ainu, and the genocide of Japan's Christian minority as well. Clean-shaven Toshiro Mifune this ain't.
Historical accuracy aside, the book's main asset is its clarity: Clements' prose is gin-clear throughout, and, sauced with the author's trademark dry wit, makes for a delightful cerebral cocktail for those with the taste to appreciate an occasional sip of educated humor. (Chapter Three contains an unforgivably lewd and achingly hilarious double entendre that is itself alone worth the book's purchase price.) The book is also fully sourced (a necessity not as common among this sort of book as one might think) and fully indexed, and contains maps, charts, and family trees so that the reader can more easily keep track of the Who and Where of the samurai's long history. The book's only down-check is its publisher's occasionally-sloppy editing and proofreading, but the few typos and other gaffes you'll find won't interfere with the book's utility or enjoyability.
If there's a better writer in English on this topic than Jonathan Clements, I haven't read him or her. If you're interested in a transparent, meticulously-researched, and colorful history of the samurai, _A Brief History of the Samurai: A New History of the Warrior Elite_ by Jonathan Clements is the book for you.