Far from the Shogun’s court at Edo, Most Honorable Investigator Sano Ichiro begins the most challenging case of his career. Upon the insistence of his strong-willed and beautiful wife Reiko, Sano arrives with her at the emperor’s palace to unmask the murderer–who allegedly possesses the secret of kiai, a way to kill with one powerful scream. A high Kyoto official is the victim so Sano must tread carefully through a web of spies, political intrigue, forbidden passions, and intricate plots. Soon Sano and Reiko must struggle to stay ahead of the palace storm–and outwit a cunning killer at the same time. But as they soon discover, solving the case means more than their survival. For if they fail, Japan could be consumed in the bloodiest war it has ever seen…
The plot – a murder mystery involving the imperial Japanese court so a lot of important people with shadowy secrets – was a bit convoluted but interesting enough to keep me reading and guessing. The fact that I guessed wrong is, I suppose, a good indicator of the author’s skills. Apart from that the novel is set in 17th century Japan, the Edo period, and it was obvious from page one that Ms Joh Rowland knew what she was writing about although I also noticed some small infodups peppering the narrative. Well. Perhaps clarifying this and that could have been done a bit subtler.
Sano was an ok main lead, especially that he had his own weaknesses and in this part almost cheated on his lovely, young wife, Reiko. Reiko herself was also nice to read about – an intrepid, independent woman in times when women were hardly expected to think and especially act on their own. Still Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu stole my heart. He was an extremely well constructed baddie who made things and scenes interesting as soon as he appeared on the page. Not only because he had a very handsome appearance worth a movie star, in a stark contrast with his inner persona, but mainly because his character was delightfully complicated. Yes he was evil, cunning and devious but not without good reasons. As a child he was sold to an aristocratic household, left alone to fend for himself and sexually abused by his superiors; small wonder he was sporting a huge chip on his shoulder ever since, trying to subjugate any real or imaginary opponent . Add to that serious trust issues (as you can guess his mum and dad could hardly be called loving parents) and inherent cowardice, something utterly despised among the samurais, and you almost understand his aggression, hatred and lack of empathy even towards his lovers (or maybe especially towards them).
From Sano’s early days at Edo Castle, Yanagisawa had viewed him as a rival for the shogun’s favour, for power over the weak, effeminate lord and thus the entire nation. He’d repeatedly tried to sabotage Sano’s investigations, destroy his reputation even assassinate him. Small wonder both gentlemen couldn’t look at each other, let alone pass the time of the day. Now a case involving the mysterious death of a court noble in the ancient imperial capital had fostered an unexpected comradeship between Sano and Yanagisawa. Not to mention the fact that Yanagisawa finally fell in love with another man and decided to give it a chance despite his ugly past experiences.
You see? I am not very demanding. A well-rounded, interesting baddie is not a mythical phoenix, a thing plenty of people have heard about but nobody has actually seen. In fact it is nothing extraordinary and it enhances my enjoyment of any novel in a significant way.
My main complaint: the writing style. It could have been far smoother, all those infodumps nicely incorporated into the narration. I admit that issue might backfire later but so far I was able to tolerate it, especially as it makes every part practically a stand-alone although they constitute a fairly long series (17 books or more). Let me also add that the cover art is simply perfect – catching your interest, reflecting well the content, visually attractive. Well done!
A crime mystery set in the 17th century Japan with a lot of cultural and historical info, a well-rounded baddie and an interesting pair of protagonists – what would you like more? Well, a bit better narrative voice for instance. Still the book, even if not especially ambitious, was a very nice casual read and I am really curious what the fates of Yanagisawa and Sano-san will be so I’ll keep reading.