Island of Exiles

Island of Exiles by I.J. Parker.  Parker’s principal player, Sugawara Akitada, is a minor government official in 11th century Japan and one of the more complex characters around.  He’s an arrogant and adulterous bureaucrat and his by-the-book rigidity causes unnecessary hardships for his family and retainers.  He’s not the best judge of character, especially with women, and he makes many mistakes and careless errors in his investigation of the exiled Crown Prince Okisada’s death on the penal island of Sado.  However, he can also be kind and generous and he inspires others to act nobly.  He’s courageous and able to endure severe punishments.  And, in the end, it’s his agile mind and talent with swordplay that brings the villains to justice.

This novel, the fifth in the Akitada series, reads much like a five act play.  In Act 1, the prince dies, the suspects are introduced and our hero is given his assignment.  In Act 2, Akitada arrives in disguise on the island and his character traits, both good and bad, are revealed when he becomes involved with events surrounding his hosts.  In Act 3, he travels the island gathering evidence, but his mistakes eventually lead to his capture.  In Act 4, his loyal lieutenant, Tora, comes to the island in search of his master.  Because Akitada chooses to solve this mystery on his own, readers unfortunately see very little of the supporting characters who were more prominent in previous stories: his wife, Tamako, his secretary, Seimei and until this point, Tora.  In the final act, Akitada escapes and after a final confrontation with his enemies, all is revealed.

It is a strange set of coincidences that both Parker and Laura Joh Rowland almost simultaneously released entries of their respective series set in ancient Japan, that both had their principal characters travel to distant islands to solve cases leaving many recurring characters out of the stories, and that both mention the Ezo (modern Ainu) tribe of northern Japan.  After reading both, I prefer Parker’s conspiracy tale to Rowland’s mystical adventure.

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