By late 1862, nine years after the enforced re-opening of Japan to the outside world by Western military power, two and a half centuries of Tokugawa rule were in serious danger of coming to an end due to the Shogunate's inability to resist this foreign interference. Like many a regime before and after, the selected response to internal threat was of extreme violence, in this case through a hand-picked group of obsessively loyal, murderous samurai. The result was a five-year reign of terror on the streets of Kyoto, the Imperial capital, during which many of the Shogunate's enemies were slain. Whether this bloodshed slightly accelerated or slightly delayed the demise of Tokugawa rule, which came in 1868 despite the Shinsengumi's best efforts, is a moot point.
Mr Hillsborough's scholarship is impressive. His Japanese language ability allows him to draw on a wide range of original source materials, many of which are referenced for the first time in an English language history, while his feel for the period is sure throughout this book's two hundred or so pages. The shortcomings lie not in the research but in the writing. The subject matter is unavoidably complicated, but not every effort is made to simplify where possible. The more flowery, introductory passages to each chapter are I think a stylistic error, tending to be overblown and frequently relying on Orientalist references to the fickle "Sun Goddess" of fate. Profiles of the main Shinsengumi figures are dumped on the reader in one deluge, rather than sprinkled through the book where appropriate for ease of absorption. In some places unnecessary reference is made to the year using both the Christian and the Japanese Imperial calendars, while in others only the month is given when from the non-linear narrative it is not clear which year is being discussed. For these reasons and others there are times when the reader is confused or distracted and the flow of the story is lost.
So don't read this if you are new to the history of Japan at this time, nor if you want to be carried along by a rollercoaster of a historical narrative. Do read if you want to delve deeper into the historical detail and learn about one of the last bloody throws of the dice by the Tokugawa Shogunate.