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THE CONCUBINE'S TATOO
Laura Joh Rowland
St. Martin's Press, 2000 (paper)
Reviewed by Jennifer Ashley
This fourth book in the Ichiro Sano series opens in the middle of Sano's wedding to his young bride, Reiko. But no sooner has Sano taken his wedding vows than he is called away from the festivities to investigate a murder. One of the shogun's young concubines has been found dead, either of poison or a bizarre illness, and the palace is thrown into turmoil.
Sano reluctantly leaves his pretty bride and goes with his assistant to the women's quarters to investigate. He soon finds himself embroiled in palace politics, finding himself pitted against the shogun's mother and her priest/lover, a young and beautiful concubine, and his old adversary Yanagisawa, the shogun's chamberlain.
Meanwhile, Reiko, awaiting Sano's return home, fumes over her loss of freedom. Her father, a magistrate and widower, had allowed Reiko to help him in his cases as well as to learn sword fighting and self-defense. She hates being confined in Sano's house, as is expected of a wife, and vows to help Sano solve his case. After all, she can approach the shogun's women where Sano cannot, and she has many connections (all female) within the palace and around Edo.
Sano is both alarmed and pleased at his wife's spirit. But he fears that Reiko will be harmed (as have others who have helped his investigations), and he tries to be a high-handed husband--which, of course, backfires. Reiko furiously defies him, then investigates on her own anyway, proudly turning over her results to Sano (she's right, of course). Sano finds himself attracted to her at the same time he is puzzled by her.
But while Sano and Reiko work out their differences, the murderer stalks Edo, and finally, Sano finds he must accept his bride's help to solve the gruesome crimes.
I did not enjoy this book as much as I hoped I would. I took it up eagerly, wanting to meet Sano's bride, but the story disappointed me. While I liked Reiko, I found her a bit unbelievable for a seventeenth-century Japanese woman. In addition, Sano's and Reiko's arrogant-man-feisty-lady arguments were too reminiscent of historical romances and out of place in this otherwise well-detailed period novel.
Also, almost every character in this novel (Sano and Reiko excepted) had some kind of sexual trauma in their background, whether it be from sexual abuse, odd perversions, or a lack of sex altogether. I assume the author meant to weave a theme, or to contrast Sano's and Reiko's first taste of tender, physical love together, but after a while, it became wearying.
That said, Rowland is an excellent historical novelist, and her grasp of Japan and period detail is superb. I also like that, throughout the series, she does not make Sano the perfect samurai. He has his faults and flaws and doesn't always win the sword fight.
This series will appeal to readers with an interest in historical mysteries as well as in the history of Japan.
The books in this series are (in order of publication) SHINJU, BUNDORI, THE WAY OF THE TRAITOR, THE CONCUBINE'S TATOO, and THE SAMURAI'S WIFE.
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