The Snow Empress

The Snow Empress by Laura Joh Rowland.  Earlier this week, I said that I would have the pleasure of reading Laura Joh Rowland’s latest volume in her Ichiro Sano series set in late 17th century Japan.  I was wrong.  I did read the book, but it was not much of a pleasure.  Sano, who has survived the political battles in the capital by solving several difficult cases is now chamberlain, second-in-command beneath the shogun, and is still engaged with his rival, Lord Matsudaira, for control of the government.  In this episode, Matsudaira kidnaps Sano’s eight-year-old son, Masahiro, and sends him to the northernmost island of Ezogashima, where the Japanese overlord, Matsumae, maintains a precarious relationship with the native islanders and acts as a buffer from the Manchu opposition on the mainland.  Sano, his wife, Lady Reiko, and all his retainers travel to the island to rescue Masahiro, but fall prisoner to Matsumae, who has gone crazy with grief after the murder three months ago of his native mistress, Tekare, and is now possessed by her spirit.  For the next 200 pages, we circle aimlessly as it is discovered that Tekare wasn’t that nice a person and that several suspects, both Japanese and native, could have killed her.  Eventually, a single clue is used as the evidence to uncover the murderer, the boy is saved, and everyone heads back home. 

Rowland’s descriptive prose is still quite pleasant and one could argue that by introducing the Ainu tribe, she shows a different aspect of Japanese culture at the time, but these good points are easily outweighed by the flaws in this story.  By moving the action out of the capital, the level of suspense and intrigue is diminished significantly.  None of the principal characters show any development at all in this book, with the exception of Sano’s retainer, Hirata, whose study of the dim-mak martial arts is enhanced when he learns from the Ainu how to better perceive energies around him by becoming more in tune with nature.  The solution to the murder case is so flimsy any good defense attorney would have easily explained it away.  The inclusion of mysticism and spirits may be an accurate portrayal of Japanese mentality, but it is overused here, and if they really believed Matsumae was possessed by Tekare’s spirit, why didn’t anyone just ask her what happened on the night she died?

Readers loyal to the series can save time by skipping this novel and waiting for Sano to return to Edo to confront Lord Matsudaira.  New readers would be better served by choosing among the other eleven stories.  I especially liked Shinjo, Black Lotus and The Assassin’s Touch.

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