Japan, 1704. In an elegant mansion a young woman named Tsuruhime lies on her deathbed, attended by her nurse. Smallpox pustules cover her face. Incense burns, to banish the evil spirits of disease. After Tsuruhime takes her last breath, the old woman watching from the doorway says, “Who’s going to tell the Shogun his daughter is dead?”
The death of the Shogun's daughter has immediate consequences on his regime. There will be no grandchild to leave the kingdom. Faced with his own mortality and beset by troubles caused by the recent earthquake, he names as his heir Yoshisato, the seventeen-year-old son he only recently discovered was his. Until five months ago, Yoshisato was raised as the illegitimate son of Yanagisawa, the shogun's favorite advisor. Yanagisawa is also the longtime enemy of Sano Ichiro.
Sano doubts that Yoshisato is really the Shogun's son, believing it's more likely a power-play by Yanagisawa. When Sano learns that Tsuruhime's death may have been a murder, he sets off on a dangerous investigation that leads to more death and destruction as he struggles to keep his pregnant wife, Reiko, and his son safe. Instead, he and his family become the accused. And this time, they may not survive the day.
I've been trying to broaden my reading selections a bit this year, stepping out of the realms of American and European historical fiction to check out some books that I might not have normally picked up off a shelf. I was really intrigued by the description of The Shogun's Daughter and decided to give it a try. The story delves right into mystery and intrigue as the shogun's only legitimate child, his grown daughter, Tsuruhime, dies a gruesome death from smallpox at the same time a scheming member of the shogun's court, Yanagisawa, is attempting to pass his own son off as the shogun's long-lost heir. Doubts and questions swirl through the palace compound, and none more so than in the mind of Sano, the shogun's trusted councilor and top investigator, whose deeply ingrained sense of honor will not allow him to let the falsehoods he suspects go unchallenged, even if it causes a fall from grace and places his family in danger. Tasked with uncovering a plot to murder Tsuruhime by none other than the shogun's wife, Sano walks a dangerous line between rival court factions while uncovering a deeper conspiracy that could topple the empire and cost him and his family their lives.
I'm glad a branched out a bit into some historical territory that was relatively new to me, but I can't say I enjoyed The Shogun's Daughter as much as I'd hoped I would. I normally like to read a series in order, but I gave this one a go anyway since I'd seen some reviewers say that the books in this series could stand alone, and this one can, but it's because there's a lot of backstory on what happened in previous novels sprinkled throughout to fill the reader in. I felt like I walked in on a story already in progress and was being given the CliffsNotes version of the entire series. I found it a little distracting, and I can imagine if I had read all of the previous novels, that probably would have really annoyed me. And I have to say I was a bit disappointed in the writing. With sixteen novels in the series before The Shogun's Daughter, not a few of which have received stellar reviews and plenty of awards, I was expecting a much more sophisticated and sweeping style and tone. Instead I found it rather simple. The dialogue didn't feel very authentic--it seemed stilted and too modern at times. There was a tendency to explain things that were obvious. I found Sano and his wife and son likable, and they were surrounded by an interesting mix of characters, but aside from one or two stand-outs, most of the secondary characters were very stereotypical. And I'm usually a fan of some mysticism, but in this case, the subplot involving Sano's retainer Hirato and his secret society controlled by a murderous ghost seemed hokey. That could be due in part to not having become familiar with the deeper aspects of that storyline in previous books. But I had a hard time taking it seriously.
The Shogun's Daughter did have some good points to weigh against what I didn't like. It's an easy read, and a quick one, as the pace zips right along through the murder investigation and the surrounding political maneuverings. And it got pretty exciting there at the end as Sano and his family raced against time to solve the case and save themselves. Though the main mystery was solved, everything was not wrapped up in a tidy, happy, predictable ending. I was surprised by the final turn of events setting up the continuation of the story in the next book. And I did enjoy the glimpse into the feudal hierarchy of Japan and the ways of the samurai and the customs of the times, and I thought the setting of a city recovering from a devastating earthquake very interesting and evocative. It's a worthwhile read for its historical context, and I can certainly see how this series has carved out a unique position in the genre. But I would recommend that someone considering an introduction to the series via this book go back and start at the beginning instead. It's not often that all of the books in a long-running series maintain the same level of quality, some are always better than others, and based on what I read and what other reviewers are saying, I think The Shogun's Daughter may be a weaker link in the overall series.
My Rating: 3 Stars out of 5
The Shogun's Daughter is on a blog tour!
Laura Joh Rowland will be here tomorrow with a guest post and a giveaway. Click here to view the rest of the tour schedule.