Laura Joh Rowland - The Samurai's Wife

This is the fifth book in the Sano Ichiro series, set in Japan of the 1600s. Sano is a detective working for the Shogun. In book 4 he had just taken a wife who wanted to help him with his detective work - and at the end of the story he had reluctantly agreed. At the time they had only been married a few days. Now, in The Samurai's Wife, we flash forward to a year later, where apparely they've been working together all year long as partners.

I have to admit I was disappointed to realize that all of that "getting to know each other" storyline had been skipped over so handily. Book 4 (The Concubine's Tattoo) involved Sano and wife Reiko barely knowing each other, fighting over her role in his life, and she had only barely gotten him to agree to let her occasionally help out by the end of the story. Now, suddenly, we start this book with them both on an important stake-out, watching to land the final blow. It seemed that all of that give-and-take, all of the delicate balances involved in forging the relationships, would have been fascinating to read about. Instead we skip it all and land right into "OK they're married for a year and she's pregnant, and they're a team." You might think therefore that the pregnancy would have involved a lot of cool details involving how the Japanese viewed pregnancy, just as the previous book involved a lot of wedding details, but as a plot device it is mentioned maybe 3 times and then completely ignored. So much for life-shattering changes!

I've studied feudal Japan for many years and I really love all books set in this time period. I don't need them to be accurate. I understand how hard it is to write with every single detail being perfect. However, I at least want to feel, somewhat, that I am in a different time, with different attitudes and situations. I also want the story to make contextual sense - that is, I want the story not to contradict itself illogically.

So I was on one hand impressed and had fun with the setting of the Emperor's City - Kyoto - which is where the Imperial Family lives. They are stuck in the past, doomed (they might feel) to an insignificant life as figureheads. On the other hand, there were numerous comments about this situation that struck me as quite out of tune. Apparently everyone in the Imperial Court is "barred from engaging in trade" - which is like saying that a shogun's wife is barred from being a prostitute! Japanese at the time looked down on merchants as a very low class, and in fact nobles didn't carry money so they would not sully themselves with the cash. The book refers to this not-having-cash several times in fact. It's as if the author knew some tidbits - but didn't realize the actual meaning.

Another situation - the book makes very clear that a samurai's wife shouldn't be going around on her own investigating murders. This is a big source of contention between Sano and wife Reiko. In fact when Sano arrives at Tokyo, he doesn't introduce Reiko as she is "just a family member". However, only a few scenes later, Sano's police officer equal is discussing where their investigation is going. The officer asks Sano what his plans are for the next day. Sano replies that he is going to do xxxx and that "my wife will do yyyy". Why in the world would he bother to tell a policeman about his wife's personal plans? It made no sense at all.

Just one more, because this one really bugged me. At one point they are talking about what happens to members of the Emperor's family if they lose power (because the Emperor abdicates or so on). The book says that for a woman to enter a nunnery "represented utter humiliation". WHAT??? Some women GLADLY entered nunneries because they were sick of the office politics and wanted a life of religious quiet and contemplation!! To equate a nunnery to humiliation just had me shaking my head. Sure, some women who wanted to be sexy and having wild parties and loved being the center of attention would, if told suddenly "Shave your head, you are going to a nunnery for the rest of your life", be quite upset. But this wasn't some sort of a blanket reaction that every single female had.

I still have an issue with Reiko in general. I found her really annoying and incongruous in book 4. I found her perhaps a little more toned down and reasonable here, but still wildly out of context for the book's setting. Let me reiterate that I am ALL for strong female characters. For example I really liked the character of Lady Jokyoden. Reiko is just over the top, though. She has little common sense and her demands for attention are very childish. In the real world, people earn respect - but she just wants it given to her immediately.

Book 4 was quite full of sex, sex and more sex. This book toned that down quite a bit, although people who flinch at homosexual situations are going to have their hands full with arch-enemy Chamberlain Yanigasawa's exploits. What The Samurai's Wife has instead is outrageously implausible fantasy elements. Up until now the series has seemed "reality based" - that you felt transported to the real Japan of the 1600s with the people and places that existed. Now, suddenly, we have people running around with KIAI power, in essence screaming and slaying other people. Seems to me that if the Japanese could do this, we'd have heard about it. Not only that, but characters talk to historical individuals that have been dead for centuries, and others have the power of mind control.

In the meantime, the plot is guessable pretty much right from the beginning, and the characters both skip incredibly obvious clues and also get clues dropped into their lap with little effort at all.

So, once I retooled my expectations to consider this a fantasy novel that had some Japanese elements in it, to enjoy for its pretty scenery rather than its robust characters or intricate plot, it was pretty enjoyable. Not all books can be complex machinations that you love reading 30 times. This was a fun afternoon read and gave me my fix of Things Japanese.

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