The Snow Empress
Author : Laura Joh Rowland
Series : A Sano Ichiro Novel
Hardcover : 304 pages
Publisher : St. Martin's Minotaur
Language : English
Japan, 1699. On a moonlit night in Ezogashima, the northernmost island of Japan, a woman is running through the forest when an arrow zooms out of the darkness to strike her dead. Meanwhile, a world away in the city of Edo, the eight-year-old son of Sano Ichiro, the samurai detective who has risen to power and influence in the shogun’s court, vanishes during a moon-watching party.
When Sano’s political rival, Lord Matsudaira, hints that the boy may be in Ezogashima, Sano’s wife, Reiko, insists on accompanying him on the desperate journey. After an eleven-day voyage through cold and treacherous waters, they arrive at Ezogashima, only to find that Lord Matsumae, distraught at the murder of his mistress Tekare, is holding the whole province hostage until someone confesses to the crime. No one is allowed in or out of Ezogashima, and although Matsumae tells Sano his son is there, he refuses to release him.
Sano strikes a deal: He will solve the murder of Matsumae’s mistress if Lord Matsumae will free the hostages and return their son. Soon, however, he and Reiko find themselves caught up in a dangerous scheme that includes clan warfare, jealous husbands, and murderous betrayal.
I first started reading Rowland’s historical mystery series, the Sano Ichiro novels, a few years back and since then I’ve become hooked on these stories set in ancient Japan. Contrary to tradition and contrary to even Sano’s own initial misgivings, he and his wife Reiko make a formidable team and together they’ve solved many mysteries and had many adventures. And gradually Ichiro has risen from the ranks of an ordinary samurai detective to Chamberlin to the Emperor, a powerful position that has gained him more enemies than friends. The mix of top notch court intrigue with breathtaking samurai action, historical details, lots of suspense and even some mysticism has over the years made this series irresistible to me.
That said - this book starts off in top gear with a middle-of-the-night murder, followed by Ichiro being maneuvered out of Edo both politically and physically by an arch-rival. So far, so good. The rest of this story was a bit disappointing. Harsh words, you say? Yes, I know and I rarely say them, which makes it even more shocking that I’m saying them for a series I’ve come to admire.
My disenchantment began with the oh-so-convenient shipwreck that dumps Ichiro and his party alive on the shores of Ezogashima and destroys everybody else along with the ship. I blinked when I read this. I went back and re-read it to make sure I’d not skipped a page somewhere. Sadly, I had not. Things continue to snowball from there on. Early on, Ezogashima is described as a place where supernatural events are commonplace. And with that one fact established, the weird factor skyrockets. While there have always been elements of the mystical in this series, in this story they’re principal, eclipsing even the detective work, which itself is disjointed.
Characterization stagnates as far as repeat characters are concerned. There’s nothing new in the relationship between Sano and Reiko. And Hirata, a main character who’s been studying dim-mak, the ancient mystic martial art, for four years, is just a prop to the whole scenario as are detectives Marume and Fukida. However, there are many new characters in this story. Predominant are Lord Matsumae and his dead mistress Tekare, whose vengeful spirit now seems to possess Matsumae. Both of them are intriguing, as is the complex relationship between them, the nature of which is suspensefully revealed during the course of the investigation.
The novel really shines when Ainu, as the natives are called, are described. The pages positively come to life when with moving words the author captures their primitive lifestyle, their cruel subjugation by the Japanese and their deep connection to their land.
Mystery has always been a focal point of this series, and the sheer amount of red herrings in this story ensures that the whodunit question isn’t answered till the end.
I’ve long been a fan of this series and this one below par story isn’t enough to turn my back on it. Hopefully the next book will have my favorite detectives back in Edo, which is their forte (and as it appears, Rowland’s too) and then … let the court games begin! Hopefully master villain Yanagisawa will also make a comeback. The series hasn’t been quite the same since this evil genius was banished.