Author: Laura Joh Rowland
Genre: Fiction (Historical / Japan / 18th Century / Edo / Samurai / Murder Mystery / Royal Intrigue / Smallpox)
Publisher/Publication Date: Minotaur Books (9/17/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Rating: Okay to liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: In 18th century Japan, the sudden death of the shogun's daughter leads to a possible pretender taking power, and samurai Sano is tasked with finding out the truth of the daughter's death.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I'm of two minds: on one hand, it just looks like an ambigu-Asian novel, but on the other hand, there is a (minor) character who has half her face obscured due to her smallpox scars, so this could be a nod to her.
First line: Moans filled a chamber lit by a single dim lantern.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow.
Why did I get this book?: I have long been interested in Rowland's series, and figured I'd just jump right into the pool!
Review: Set in 1704 in Edo, Japan, this novel is the seventeenth (!) book in a series about samurai Sano Ichiro. The novel opens five months after a massive earthquake (thought to be 8.2 in magnitude!) hit Japan. The shogun (who is not equivalent to an emperor, wiki tells me, but is answerable only to him) is in a panic about his legacy when his only child, his daughter, dies unexpectedly of smallpox. Without an obvious heir, he shocks everyone by dismissing his nephew and instead revealing a long lost son.
Although many in the shogun's court suspect the 'son' is really the child of the scheming chamberlain, the shogun is adamant the child is his. With the new heir declared, there's a purge in current positions, with many killing themselves rather than live with the shame of their demotions. Sano is demoted to Chief Rebuilding Magistrate, a position that surprises him, and Sano expected to lose everything. Rather, the position allows him to keep his estate and a few retainers, and although a step 'down', still gives him some access and power. Unsurprisingly, Sano is presented with a thorny mystery as soon as he returns home: the possibility that the shogun's daughter was murdered.
I was a bit nervous that I'd be totally lost stepping into the seventeenth book in a series, but Rowland does a fine job of providing enough back story to keep the new reader informed while carrying enough momentum for Sano and his family that loyal readers should be satisfied. While the overarching mystery is very mundane, Rowland includes a rather mystical subplot involving one of Sano's retainers, a man who has joined a magical martial arts sect. While I initially found those scenes jarring -- I wasn't prepared for any supernatural elements -- I actually rather liked that merging of ordinary and extraordinary.
Rowland's world of court intrigue mimics that of other 17th and 18th century historical novels, but becomes especially intriguing when set in Japan. The samurai 'bushido' code colors Sano's behavior and choices, and the cultural emphasis on honor makes powerful people react quite differently than they would in a Tudor novel, for example. As court life is very male-oriented, Rowland provides a strong cast of female characters to balance that out, who have power in their own spheres; Sano's wife is as much a participant in his investigation as he is.
My only real complaint is that in my ARC the Historical Note appears before the story, not after, and as a result, spoils the entire novel. I hadn't thought to ignore it, and so I read it without realizing it resolved the entire arc of the book. Hopefully it appears at the end of the book in the finished version. (A word of warning: Rowland's website offers an excerpt of this book and it opens with the Historical Note. I advise you to skip it and just start with the 'Prologue'.)
Japanophiles will want this one as well as those who enjoy court intrigue and drama. Rowland's 18th century Edo is alien and familiar, and provides an fascinating background. Be unafraid about jumping in midseries!
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Shogun’s Daughter to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 10/4.
Come back on 9/30 to see my interview with the author!