Laura Joh Rowland - The Dragon King's Palace

By now Sano Ichiro is on his 8th story. He's still the main detective in late 1600s feudal Japan for the incompetent Shogun. He's still battling his homosexual foe Chamberlain Yanagisawa. I was worried that this book would fall into a rut, given the previous books. However, I was actually very pleasantly surprised and to me this is the best book in the series so far.

First, I had found the previous interactions between Sano and wife Reiko to be either stilted or moralistic. In this one, they completely separated the female characters - the Shogun's mother, Reiko, Midori (very pregnant) and Lady Yanagisawa into kidnapped desolation. This allowed these four characters to each shine and become unique without the usual "ah the poor women of Japan, they are so beat on" diatribe.

On the other side, we have Sano who is now siding with Yanagisawa and his lover Hoshina to track down the hostages. This is a pretty standard literary device - they have to work together to fight the greater evil - but it really did make for some interesting situations and interactions.

More than that, though, we finally saw some interesting character growth and change, which had been missing from most previous books. The Shogun took action. His mom gained some strength. Lady Yanagisawa faced some fears. Hirata took a stand for his love. In the past, their plot-driven vacillations drove me crazy. Finally in this one, people were acting like real three dimensional humans with motivations.

There were still a few moments that bothered me. The intro sequence has a husband who kills his wife for adultery. This would be expected. Then he commits suicide for having to kill his wife. Why? That would be like a sniper who shoots an enemy, then kills himself for shooting the enemy. He did what he was supposed to do.

Reiko is told by Lady Keisho-in that they're all going to Mount Fuji - and she responds that "the Shogun may need my help". This was *very* presumptuous of her - and not quite supported by any previous book. Certainly she helped her husband but it was a very under-cover subtle thing, not something where Sano went to the Shogun and said "My wife found this clue for me ..."

Reiko is certainly trained in how to use a sword - but she's a mom now, and if she exercises, it's an occasional thing. Still, when they are attacked by a well trained militia - one that takes out professional soldiers and bodyguards - she manages to hold off 13 of them on her own. Even if we argue "they wanted to take her alive" it still doesn't make much sense.

We were spared a lot of the "life back then sucked, was smelly and mouldy" story from previous books, but there were still moments. When the four women are stuck in a falling-down, roof leaking, bat dung filled room with awful food and a single pot to pee / etc. in, Reiko muses to herself "So this is how poor people live ..." I don't think so! People denied her 'mansion life' do not necessarily wallow in filth. Poor people can have great pride in their homes and in cleanliness.

There was also an amusing continuity problem where on page 78 the Shogun had 100 concubines, but by page 196 he had 200 concubines. I guess they multiply like rabbits!

The ending was extremely uncomfortable. Rowland likes to do that. I can't say more without giving it away, but Rowland deliberately enjoys pushing the envelope of what we feel "comfortable" with main characters doing. I find it very hard to believe that these characters run into all of these bizarre situations repeatedly.

I do have a general comment that having "insane characters who can do anything at any time" like Lady Yanagisawa and Lord Niu are like having built in deux ex machina. You have an issue? Poof, insane person does something plot related and moves bits along. I would much rather have that toned back.

Still, in general this is much more coherent than previous books, the characters show growth and insight, and having the characters separated gave each group its chance to shine and distinguish itself. As always, I love the environment and descriptive storytelling. I am very eager to read the next book now, moreso than I'd looked forward to releases of previous books in this series.

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