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Publisher's Summary

Nicholai Hel, born in the ravages of World War I China to an aristocratic Russian mother and a mysterious German father, raised in the spiritual gardens of a Japanese Go Master, survives the destruction of Hiroshima to emerge as the world's most artful lover and its most accomplished and highly paid assassin. Genius, mystic, master of language and culture, Hel's secret is his determination to attain a rare kind of personal excellence, a state of effortless perfection: shibumi.

Now living in an isolated mountain fortress with his magnificent Eurasian mistress, Hel faces his most sinister enemy, a super-monolith of espionage and monopoly. The battle lines are drawn: ruthless power and corruption on one side and on the other, shibumi.

©1979 Trevanian (P)2005 Blackstone Audiobooks

Critic Reviews

  • 2005 Audie Award Nominee, Solo Narration (Male)

"It's hard to imagine a more nearly perfect spy story." (Milwaukee Journal) "Novels about international intrigue demand intricate plotting. Shibumi delivers." (Los Angeles Times)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings


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  • Story

Only a Russian could be this shibumi

This book is for people who like James Bond, Jason Bourne, and all those other super-ninja Gary Stu action heroes fueled by atomic testosterone. Except if you pay attention, Trevanian is laughing at you. Shibumi shamelessly exploits every single cliche in the genre and then sneers at them. Trevanian's mockery of American culture is acidly funny and not particularly affectionate. Sometimes the self-aware satire and the angry derision seem to blend together.

“It was not their irritating assumption of equality that annoyed Nicholai so much as their cultural confusions. The Americans seemed to confuse standard of living with quality of life, equal opportunity with institutionalized mediocrity, bravery with courage, machismo with manhood, liberty with freedom, wordiness with articulation, fun with pleasure - in short, all of the misconceptions common to those who assume that justice implies equality for all, rather than equality for equals.”

So what to make of a book where the main character is named Nicholai Hel? His mother was a Russian aristocrat, he was born in Shanghai, he was raised by a Japanese go master, and in the aftermath of World War II, he becomes the most ninjaest ninja ever. He learns Basque while spending three years in solitary confinement and so he moves to Spain to hang out in Basque country with his Afro-Euroasian concubine who is lovingly described as a collection of all the best body parts from the sum total of her ethnicities.

The plot is your basic revenge thriller: Hel's ties of duty and obligation bring him into conflict with the Mother Company, which is the umbrella organization representing all the world's energy interests and pretty much controls the Western world. In between snappy dialog in which Hel shows off how he is just so refined and Shibumi and shizzle with derision leveled at every Western country (the Brits, the French, the Italians, and the Germans all get it in the neck at some point, but no one more than Americans), there are action scenes where Hel proves he can do everything from cave diving to killing people with playing cards, equally over-the-top sex scenes 'cause of course learning to kill and play go also makes Hel totally awesome at the sexing.

What elevated this book above the schlock it is pretending to be is the vicious satire and the clever writing. Trevanian could write some sophisticated literary pulp fiction. He was having fun while poking his readers in the eye. He plays it straight all the way through: Shibumi reads like you are supposed to take it seriously, but you can kind of hear his snicker echoing in the main character's dialog. I suspect the racism and sexism was part of the performance. This is a Men's Adventure novel for the cynical hipsters of the 70s, back before appropriating Japanese culture was what all the cool kids did and the idea of structuring a killer thriller around the Oriental game of go (yeah, Shibumi uses words like "Oriental" unironically, and also refers to Arabs as "goat-herds" and portrays all the Arab characters as cowardly gay terrorists) made all the literati who wanted to read something a little more masculine than J.R.R. Tolkien groove on Trevanian's way cool, like, deeep understanding of Oriental culture, man.

Sorry, I can't mock Trevanian nearly as wittily as he mocks me.

This was a fun novel, entertaining on multiple levels. It really does have the tone of a literary author slumming in a chanbara cinema.

33 of 34 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Dave
  • Glenview, IL, United States
  • 10-04-05

It Doesn't Get Any Better Than This

This is, in my humble opinion, one of the all-time great thrillers, and it stands the test of time exceptionally well. It's rare to find action and thrills and blood and guts mixed so seamlessly with thought-provoking ideas and philosophy, and even more unusual for the ideas in the book to be almost as compelling and fast-reading as the thrills . . . but Shibumi delivers both without ever slowing down the pace or losing momentum. I always hoped Trevanian would investigate these characters and ideas further in other novels, but I've had to satisfy myself by reading Shibumi over and over again in book and audiobook format instead (BTW, thank you Audible for finally carrying this title!). If you like thrillers with just a little more meat on their bones (or characters with a little more character than the typical comic book hero), you're not likely to find a more enjoyable page-turner than Shibumi. They just don't make assassins -- or thrillers -- like this any more.

49 of 53 people found this review helpful

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  • Performance
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An Assassin is Born

Would you consider the audio edition of Shibumi to be better than the print version?

Absolutely, I don't miss a word or even an inflection in any part of this novel. This is important because the real genius of this novel is how Hel becomes the man he is, rather than his actions.

What was one of the most memorable moments of Shibumi?

I enjoyed all of the scenes involving his Japanese benefactor.

What does Joe Barrett bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

His reading was brilliant, on a level with Ray Porter and Will Patton.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

I simply enjoyed every moment of it.

Any additional comments?

There was a moment I cringed in embarrassment for the author when a key element of the story implied the US government was complicit in the assignation of Kennedy. I understand this was written in 1979, but it is far too unsubstantiated and convenient a tool.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • Christian
  • East Northport, NY, United States
  • 10-27-05

One of the Greatest.... EVER!

If you are a fan of the "Tales of the Otori" trilogy I would highly recommend this book. I loved the Otori books, and found this work to be in the same kind of genre. The difference being that this story takes place sometime around when it was written: 1979. To tell you truth, I actually enjoyed this book more than any other listen to date.

One of the reasons I liked it so much was because about half way through the book a character is introduced who will make you wet your pants from laughing so hard. In spite of that the book keeps it's seriousness/suspense till the end.

If you are interested in Japan, martial arts, stories about assassins, and/or espionage themes, then do yourself a favor and drop your credits on this masterpiece.

23 of 27 people found this review helpful

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What a superb novel

Would you listen to Shibumi again? Why?

I was guided to this book during my quest to read all of Don Winslow's novels. I read SAVAGES and was hooked on Winslow's writing. He wrote a novel that was tied to this Trevenian classic as a prequel with many of the same characters. When i discovered this, I did a little research and found SHIBUMI, (on which Winslow's novel SATORI was based) to be held in high literary regard. I enjoyed it immensely. Like many of Winslow's novels it has broad historical scope with cultural and historical accuracy coupled with a plot that grabs you and won't let go!

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Russ
  • Arlington, VA, USA
  • 10-07-05


It has to be 20+ years since I've read this book. I've been waiting that long to see it in audio format, and I'm happy I went through the long list of new releases and found this title.

This book rocks with action and suspense, far more than Eiger Sanction or Loo Sanction, which I had read first and loved; reading them each more than once. But SHIBUMI blew me away enough to make the other 2 books almost forgotten.

While in one sense it's a little dated, and maybe the philosophy is strained, the book is so good it's not at all hard to suspend reality and really get, well, emotionally involved in this thriller.

And to AUDIBLE: thanks for adding it to your library! And please add the Sanction books and all the other(s) in the Trevanian bibliography!! Unabridged, naturally!

18 of 22 people found this review helpful

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  • Peyton
  • Imperial, PA United States
  • 07-05-09

Not an expert, I liked it...

Hello, I was surprised that Marius was so critical of a book I enjoyed tohoughly. An engineer, not qualified to discuss Proust, I like novels featuring Japanese philosophy couched in 'action' format. So, now an admitted philistine, I also disclose that my Audible libray includes over 500 titles; I recommend this book to those who enjoyed Across the Nightingale Floor...

12 of 15 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Don't believe the hype

I would have given 2.5 stars. Decent but generic narrative. Perhaps back in the day this was a fast paced action thriller. To me it was dull, trite and overwritten.

I am not sure why people give this book 5 stars (cult followers of Trevanian?). I understand why there are those who give it 1 star (pissed that what is touted is a remarkable book could be so boring).

I would advise you to look elsewhere if you are looking for an entertaining, compelling action novel.

9 of 12 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Feels dated

Whenever I rate a book 3 stars or less I feel obligated to let you know why. Shibumi had a lot going for it, but I felt like I was asked to accept alot. The hero was put in high risk situations and often times had horrible mental and physical stresses. Somehow, he always managed to come through it all -- just like James Bond. So there were excellent action sequences, over the top situations, and no good sex scenes to keep me coming back. I would rather read Ian Fleming.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

  • Overall


I first read Shibumi about 25 years ago, and so enjoyed it that I bought copies for friends, and recommended it to just about everyone I knew. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, and in this case I strongly disagree with any reader/listener who awards Shibumi less than 4 stars. Listen!!! You won't be disappointed.

9 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • ThePuss
  • 08-23-10

Unusual and interesting

This is said to be regarded as Trevanian's most critically acclaimed work, and while I enjoyed the book for its breadth of plot (it covers the main character's life from more or less birth through retirement), and the deepness of the main character, I found it dragged a bit in places.
Having said that, I stuck with it, and it was an enjoyable listen. I don't know a great deal about the author, but his descriptions of pot-holing (like those of climbing in 'Eiger' and 'Loo') are excellent, but if they were in a film, they would be the point at which I chose to go to the toilet!
It seems that a good deal of research went into this epic novel, and it does show.
The reader does a fairly good job covering all the characters and accents, although there is still the under-twang of an American accent, I didn't find it to be disconcerting.
Unlike the 'Eiger Sanction', I don't think this would translate well to film, so if you are interested in this, you're going to have to read it or listen to it!

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • C. M. E. Beckingham
  • 08-23-13

'Spy Spoof'

A specialist genre -'spy spoof' but worth the occasional visit especially for this book. Not quite a 5* but a good 4. Almost took it seriously at times until a sudden ludicrous jolt reminded me it was a send up. Very clever book and amusing in a non-LOL kind of way.