Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Incense Game

Warning - Spoiler for The Ronin's Mistress

I recently found out that Laura Joh Rowland has ended the Sano Ichiro series.  I'm disappointed (even though I have two unread books on my shelf) because the last two have been so engrossing.  Like The Ronin's Mistress, The Incense Game centers on a historical event.  A major earthquake hit Tokyo in December 1703.  Thousands died (either immediately or in the fires that followed in the wood-constructed city) and costal villages were wiped off the map by the subsequent tsunami.   The Shogun assigns Sano, once again serving as chamberlain, to the reconstruction projects which are not progressing quickly enough for His Excellency.  Ordered by the impatient Emperor to inspect and report on the progress of the rebuilding, Sano comes across a collapsed house containing the bodies of three women who appear to have been poisoned by contaminated incense.

Two of the women are the daughters of a powerful daimyo, and their father blackmails Sano into investigating the crime.  Discover who killed his daughters and Lord Hosokawa will provide money to rebuild Edo; fail, and he'll join the disgruntled lords ready to topple the Shogun.  Trapped into potential dishonor by the Samuri code of honor, Sano must first determine the identity of the target and then find the culprit.  Sano's suspect list is short, with two commoners (the incense teacher's former master and her current apprentice) and two nobles (Ryuko - the Shogun's chief priest and his mother's lover, and Ogyu, a prominent scholar).  Although improbable (but surprisingly relevant to 2016), Rowland fully supports her solution and does so without making it too obvious to the reader.

Rowland also weaves two subplots into The Incense Game.  The first continues Sano's retainer Hirata's mystical journey.  In exchange for their help in the investigation, Hirata agrees to join his late master's other students in one of their ceremonies and learns too late that his fellow students are not as they appear.  I'm not fond of this thread, but Rowland inserts it more successfully than she has in some of her prior novels.  I was more interested in her second subplot; former Chamberlain Yanigasawa's attempted return to power.  After the death of his son Yuritomo, Yanigasawa became a recluse.  Three years later, the Shogun's cousin has positioned himself as the likely heir.  With four more sons, Yanigasawa believes he still has a path to power, and both his interactions with his second son and the plot he developed to place the boy near the Shogun are extremely entertaining.

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