The Shogun's Daughter by Laura Joh Rowland is the seventeenth novel featuring samurai sleuth Sano Ichirō of the court of the shogun in 17th Century Edo (available September 17, 2013).
When the daughter of the shogun dies of smallpox, a power struggle erupts among the court, since she did not live to bear him heirs. Yoshisato is a teenager who's been raised as the son of Sano's archenemy, Yanagisawa, and emerges as the recently “discovered” son of the shogun and, therefore, the new heir to the throne. When Yanagisawa uses the tragedy to enrich his own power and take revenge upon Sano, who is demoted from the shogun's chamberlain, the suspicions surrounding Tsuruhime's death multiply. Sano must find the truth with his pregnant wife's and adolescent son's help, or his entire family may perish in the aftermath.
The seventeenth novel in the Sano Ichirō series amps up the intrigue. Set after a powerful earthquake devastates the city, the infighting and power-playing of the samurai lords is put in stark view. If you enjoyed James Clavell's Shogun or courtly power struggles in other historical contexts, Rowland pulls the strings of tension taut here. Whether you are familiar with Edo period Japan or new to it, she offers a fascinating glimpse into the era's history with a spread of compelling characters, from Sano himself to his reckless samurai friend Hirata, who returns to the city with a ruthless warrior cult on his tail.
Rowland spins a traditional detective tale with unconventional means. We get the internal monologue of a deductive sleuth, plenty of action and intrigue, and clever methods of questioning, such as during a swordfighting tournament:
Someone tossed Sano a wooden sword. As he inspected it, he hoped he wasn’t making a mistake. He’d won many real fights, but he was almost thirty years older than Yoshisato, and although he was adept at controlling his weapon during practice matches, so as not to hurt his opponent, an accident was always possible.
Yoshisato walked confidently to the center of the field. Sano followed.
They faced each other, swords in hand. The audience rumbled with anticipation. Yoshisato lifted an eyebrow, waiting for Sano to speak or move first.
He was so like Yanagisawa, in his mannerisms if not his looks.
“I’m investigating the murder of the shogun’s daughter,” Sano said.
“I know. You think somebody infected her with smallpox.”
“Who told you? Your father?”
Yoshisato smiled briefly, letting Sano know that he knew Sano didn’t mean the shogun. “My adoptive father.”
The story does not flinch from the brutal realities of feudalism, and Sano is not the most enlightened of his kind; he operates within Bushido, the samurai code. In the opening chapters he beheads his friend, who committed suicide in shame. He sends thieves to their death as a judge, without a thought. He respects and loves his wife, but the order of power is ironclad. Like all women in repressive cultures, they behave one way when men are present, and another when they are alone. And everyone obeys the rules of their culture, but bends them every which way they can.
“If Lord Tsunanori did know, what would he have done to Tsuruhime?”
Jinnosuke looked up in surprise. “Nothing. What could he have done? She was the shogun’s daughter. You don’t divorce the shogun’s daughter, shave her head, or send her to work as a prostitute in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter.”
Those were the usual punishments for women who committed adultery, Masahiro knew.
The dialogue is earthy and never stilted; the point of view changes from Sano to his wife, his son Masahiro, a budding investigator himself, from Hirata the brash fighter, to Sano's enemy Yanagisawa, a cunning, near-psychopathic opponent, made all the more human by his few weaknesses. Sex is no sin, and men of power fulfill their desires at a whim.
Take for example this scene where Sano's wife Reiko grills a concubine. The eroticism is palpable and intertwined with the strict sense of justice the age embraces:
As a child Reiko had gone to the city with her grandmother and they’d seen a woman tied to a stake, about to be burned as punishment for arson. Her grandmother had pulled her away before the fire was set, but Reiko had never forgotten the woman. Now Reiko saw the same wild, desperate expression on Lady Someko. She’d voiced Lady Someko’s worst nightmare— that Yoshisato would turn into Yanagisawa, his real father. A draft stirred Lady Someko’s robes. The reddish-bronze silk glowed like flames consuming her body.
Sano is constantly in conflict with his own sense of honor and the code of Bushido in his feud with Yanagisawa, and he is not untarnished. He is up against a ruthless opponent and knows it. Many detectives have a code, but Sano's is one proscribed by his warrior caste, and watching him grapple with its tenets makes him an extremely compelling character. He is somewhat softened by modern mores, but never veers from believability.
Hirata's battles with his martial artist mystics take the story into the realm of fantasy, but for lovers of Japanese folklore and samurai films, they will not be alien:
Tahara and Kitano hung in midair, higher than the treetops, their knees flexed, arms spread, swords in hand. They began to spin as they plummeted, like twin tornados. Wind from them buffeted Hirata and Deguchi. Staggering, Hirata beheld them with frightful awe. They seemed made of air, as if speed had dissolved their substance. Above them, tree branches tossed. Under them, columns of dust swirled. As they touched ground, invisible blades lashed out of the tornados. The tornados separated. Kitano’s circled Deguchi. Tahara’s assailed Hirata.
For fans of the samurai era, historical mystery in general, or just a gripping tale of intrigue, The Shogun's Daughter would be a fine introduction to the Sano Ichirō series. The story informs us of the many clashes that Sano and his archenemy have had, without bogging down in backstory or leaving new readers confused, and the world Rowland has built for Ichirō to investigate is a real and compelling one. It made me eager to begin with the first and discover Sano and Hirata's adventures. Sano's family and retainers are useful and interesting, and they get plenty to do in this story.
The Tokugawa era was a tenuous truce among warlords, a forced allegiance of prefectures kept in line with fear. Daimyo families lived in Edo as hostages to the shogun, but there was always the concern that a weak shogun would inspire rebellion. And Sano Ichirō faces just that catastrophe, as the sitting ruler is weak of mind and spirit. Sano's fickle lord, his obsessed enemy, his reckless retainer, and his endangered family all force him to question his own honor and allegiance to Bushido. The samurai admired as the most honorable investigator to the shogun tests his most extreme limits as his family's fate hangs in the balance. It's a great read, a clever mystery, and a gripping thriller.
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Thomas Pluck writes unflinching fiction with heart. He is the author of Blade of Dishonor, an action thriller spanning Shogun-era Japan to WWII, and the editor of Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT, an anthology of crime fiction for charity. You can find him on Twitter as @tommysalami.