Laura Joh Rowland - Black LotusIntriguingly, although this is the 6th book in Rowland's Sano Ichiro series, it was the first one I had heard of or seen. I was thrilled when I spotted it in a bookstore, because it involved two of my passions - mystery stories and feudal Japan. Set in the late 1600s, Sano is a detective working for the Shogun. He's got a young wife, a toddler, and murders to solve. I read it through and had certain thoughts about the book. I then got the previous books, read them up to this point, and read the book again. The books are finish-in-a-rainy-afternoon quickies so it wasn't hard to do, and it let me see this story in its context. I'll try to write my review to suit both jump-in-the-middle-of-the-series readers as well as those who have read the previous 5 books.
As far as Sano and wife Reiko goes, you really don't need much back story. She appears in book 4 as a completely unknown woman he marries in an arranged setup. In book 5 they've been married a year and she acts almost exactly as she does in this book - and their relationship is primarily contentious. So what you see in this book is what you get. He married her expecting a "normal wife". She, brought up to learn martial arts and philosophy, SHOULD have been a wise, intelligent, skilled woman who found healthy ways to help her husband make huge progress in his career while having a fulfilling life of her own. There are certainly many such women all through Japanese history - as well as most other cultures that have a wife-stays-at-home mentality. Heck, even in the 1950s, this was expected of women.
Instead, Reiko acts like a spoiled 2 year old, REPEATEDLY. It's one thing to be intelligent and capable. I've read many biographies of intelligent, capable women who achieved incredible goals. It's quite another thing to be rude, pig-headed and deliberately cause the near destruction of your beloved child numerous times because of your poorly thought out actions. Even if we say she doesn't really love Sano for whatever reason, she is shown to adore her child. And yet she puts her child at risk of death - if not at least being orphaned - repeatedly. It makes no sense that a woman that intelligent would act the way she does.
I'm not saying Sano is a model of intelligence, either. He leaps on clues as if they were the only one he'd ever seen. He has wild panic attacks with every new mission that THIS will be the one that finally gets him and his entire family slain. He has been brought up in this culture - he should be very aware of its nuances and how politics work. But when sending a letter off to ask for help, he words it in a way that was pretty outrageous. Nobody would ever commit words to paper like he did that involved his superiors.
OK, so back to the story. There's a cult in town with a charismatic, almost psychic leader. His force of will borders on supernatural. I say borders on because the previous book was WILDLY supernatural with death-causing-shouts, so it was good in this one that it at least tried to be more realistic. The cult is of course bad news, and Haru, a wild teen girl, gets caught up in 3 murders. Reiko believes in Haru despite her numerous lies. Sano thinks she's guilty and wants to get the case closed up quickly. You also have a sideline story with Sano's helper acting like a royal jerk - and Reiko's friend acting extremely immaturely. So while normally Sano and Reiko would have annoyed me greatly, in this one they actually paled in comparison with how irrationally their two friends were acting.
I do want to point out that I keep buying these books and reading them, so I'm not saying they are awful. The texture of the descriptions is marvelous. I have studied feudal Japan for many years, and yes there are numerous errors. You have to sort of ignore those. I really enjoy the descriptions of the architecture, the gardens, even the scenes in nature.
The reason Reiko in particular annoys me so much is that in general this is EXACTLY the character I wanted to read about in books. A Japanese heroine, skilled in sword, intelligent and educated, living in this feudal world. I'd been dreaming of a series like this for many years. To see that character act in such an outrageously inept manner, foolishly causing great risks to herself and her family when a wiser course of action would have found success, bugs me to no end.
It also bugs me a bit that, as far as a mystery story goes, there really isn't one. It's sort of obvious pretty quickly what has happened. Reiko and Sano don't find clues as much as have clues dropped into their laps. The wrap-up scene is a bit too much, as well. I always love it when bad guys explain all of their motives and stories in immense detail to someone they're about to kill.
I don't get bothered by sex much, so the fact that all of these books involve guys having sex with guys, girls having sex with girls, people in authority having sex with youngsters, etc. mostly for the 'shock factor' doesn't overly concern me. If that sort of storytelling bugs you, be aware it's in here.
On the other hand, I do notice that in pretty much every book in the series (including this one) there are numerous comments made about only teenagers being beautiful - and anyone older than say 25 is a has-been who can only dream of their "lost beauty". In some cases it's written that it's shocking that someone over 25 could still be thought of as attractive. This certainly was NOT an attitude held at the time, and it's not one that's true in modern times, either. I would really like to see this kind of age-bashing toned down in future books.
To summarize, I keep buying and supporting the series hoping that as Reiko gets older, she'll start to actually exhibit some wisdom and maturity. I don't want her to become a "boring housewife" - that's not my point. If she really IS an intelligent, skilled woman, it's about time she begun to act like it, and to achieve her goals in a mature manner. I also really hope that somewhere along the way, Sano and Reiko begin to learn what detecting is all about.
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