Review: The Gods of Heavenly Punishment

I received this book for free from TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: The Gods of Heavenly PunishmentThe Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on January 13, 2014
Genres: Historical
Pages: 382
Format: Paperback
Source: TLC Book Tours
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Triumphant…Big, visceral, achingly humane." —Jennifer Egan

In this evocative and thrilling epic novel, fifteen-year-old Yoshi Kobayashi, child of Japan's New Empire, daughter of an ardent expansionist and a mother with a haunting past, is on her way home on a March night when American bombers shower her city with napalm--an attack that leaves one hundred thousand dead within hours and half the city in ashen ruins. In the days that follow, Yoshi's old life will blur beyond recognition, leading her to a new world marked by destruction and shaped by those considered the enemy: Cam, a downed bomber pilot taken prisoner by the Imperial Japanese Army; Anton, a gifted architect who helped modernize Tokyo's prewar skyline but is now charged with destroying it; and Billy, an Occupation soldier who arrives in the blackened city with a dark secret of his own. Directly or indirectly, each will shape Yoshi's journey as she seeks safety, love, and redemption.

Rarely do I read book blurbs, but, as I was putting my review together, I happened to glance at this one. Ignore it. While the information is kind of right, it’s also highly misleading. Yoshi is sort of the main character, in so much as there is one, but she goes from age 6 to 32 throughout the course of the novel. The scope is much larger than the blurb suggests, and the tone rather darker. The Gods of Heavenly Punishment spans almost thirty years and draws together a large cast to show a range of rarely-covered war experiences in a moving and thoughtful way.

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment opens in 1935 with the romance between Cameron Richards, a handsome but painfully shy young man recovering from a stutter, and Lacy, a daring, determined young woman. Their second date is sweet and full of promise, much like the world before WWII. So much hope and so many loves were destroyed by the war. The tone then shifts, with another story in 1935 that introduces Billy and Yoshi as children, to something a bit darker, a splash of fire in Tokyo to signal the future to come.

While I’ve read quite a bit of WWII fiction, I’ve not read anything quite like The Gods of Heavenly Punishment. There tends to be a heavily Western focus; I’ve read any number of WWII novels set in Britain or France. Epstein’s novel takes place in America, Japan, and Manchuria. She touches on bits of WWII history which are rarely mentioned. Even in the American parts, she raises the issue of internment, subtly and quietly, and covers the building of cities for the purpose of seeing how effective bombing a German or Japanese town might be.

For the most part, Epstein deals largely with the daily life of war, rather than the shocking horrors. She shows survival, the day-to-day, the way that life continues. Still, a couple of times, she gets into the gruesome facts of the war, and she does that deftly and intensely. The Gods of Heavenly Punishment manages to capture a larger view of the war and a small microcosm all at once.

World War II is obviously a large part of what The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is about, but there’s also a huge focus on family. Interpersonal relationships have as large of an affect on the characters as the war does. Both Billy and Yoshi have issues and guilt stemming from their parents treatment of them as children, memories that will haunt them just as the horrors of war do. I love that Epstein managed to show both the larger horrors of war and the way that, on an individual level, the war isn’t all-consuming or the sole avenue of pain.

I highly recommend The Gods of Heavenly Punishment to anyone who enjoys WWII fiction. There’s bound to be something new in here for even the most well-read on the topic.

Favorite Quote:

“I was as upset by Pearl Harbor as anyone else. It was cowardly, atrocious. Indefensible. But—and this may seem petty, or naïve or whatever—but I just can’t get around the idea that in order to win the war we have to kill people who had nothing to do with starting it.”

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

This book, it hurts.

This book, it hurts.

9 responses to “Review: The Gods of Heavenly Punishment”

  1. techeditor says:

    I won this book, too. But it was recently, so I haven’t received it yet. I agree with you about avoiding synopses on book flaps. I usually don’t read book reviews anywhere other than the first and last paragraphs because they always say too much. I want to discover the book myself. But I do want to know if reviews are good or bad.

  2. This book looks so great! I haven’t read many books about World War II but I love the sound of this one. The fact that this book doesn’t focus totally on the tragic events but instead on the day-to-day life of Yoshi. Also a growing-up story from six to thirty-two is definitely intriguing. I’m going to have to check this book out soon! Fantastic review, Christina! <33

    • Christina Franke says:

      There are a few REALLY heartbreaking, shocking, violent scenes, but the rest is in the quieter moments. I think that actually really highlights the darkness. It works so well.

  3. Jessie says:

    I am so glad you ended up liking this one. I thought you might when I read it a while back so it’s nice to see my nevermade req would have been right.

    I agree that this is really moving, original, and thoughtful. Like you, I appreciated that Epstein doesn’t focus on the stories we always hear about this war.

    I was really surprised with what happens with Cam’s storyline. I mean, if I had thought about it, I would have expected it. But first character introduced, fighter pilot in a WWII book, I expected….. a different outcome.

    But, that said, I like how ruthlessly Epstein treated her characters. War sucks, people die and she shows that.

    “The Gods of Heavenly Punishment manages to capture a larger view of the war and a small microcosm all at once.” Perfect line is perfect. You always know how to describe a book.

    Lovely review.
    Jessie recently posted…Review: Uninvited by Sophie JordanMy Profile

    • Christina Franke says:

      Ha, well, I saw your review on your blog and remembered. Never would have signed up for the tour if I hadn’t seen your praise for it. Signing up for long tour books without any reviews to rely on makes me nervous.

      The book was all over the place, and it created this awesome pastiche of parts I didn’t know about. I’ve definitely never read anything set in Manchuria or the test bombings of villages built in the US. That’s so cool!

      I SO did not expect Cam’s story line to end that way. I’m pretty sure I HAD to make a status update at that point, which I don’t do much when I’m reding.

      She is ruthless, but it was also so quiet, which almost makes the horrors more horrific, because they were just daily life and almost not shocking. Just oof.

      Haaaa, thanks.

  4. I read a book years ago that dealt with the firebombing but this one sounds like a much more interesting story. Thanks for being on the tour!

  5. Bonnie says:

    I hadn’t read the blurb for this one either so had no idea this was about WWII. Recently I’ve become a fan of all things related and since we’re adult book twins I guess I’ll be picking this one up!
    Bonnie recently posted…Something To Look Forward To – Week of January 27th, 2014My Profile

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