Book Review: Sarah Joh Rowland’s The Ronin’s Mistress.

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten this blog! It’s just that February kept me pretty busy. It also probably didn’t help that, when I was about a third of the way through Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, I accidentally left it at a bar. (Sometimes I’m ‘that guy’ by himself in a corner reading a book with his lunch. Shut up). Oh, and I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim, too.

But! Good news is, things are settling in now, so I’ve had the chance to hop back on my reading. Which brings me to my latest review of Sarah Joh Rowland’s The Ronin’s Mistress.

Despite the title, the flowers on the cover, and the generally close-to-pink shading, it’s worth noting The Ronin’s Mistress is not a cheesy romance novel. In fact, it’s a book that’s kind of a mashup of genres, but we’ll get to that later. As are most books I review for this blog, this was a find at a used bookstore- and for the whopping price of a dollar (for a hardback, even!) I thought I’d give it a go.

The premise is actually rather fun. The book is based around the events of the 47 Ronin, a rather famous event in Japanese history- one that’s been dramatized and re-envisioned a bajillion times over the years, even in the form of a Keanu Reeves movie. For those amongst my reading audience who aren’t Japanese history buffs, the story of the 47 Ronin is about 47 samurai who form a conspiracy to avenge their dishonored master. Basically, they lay low for two years, and then sneak into the house of the guy responsible for their master’s death, at which point they kill the shit out of him. Very chanbara. (Then again, if you know what the term ‘chanbara’ means, you probably already know the legend of the 47 Ronin, but I digress).

Now, the really interesting thing about The Ronin’s Mistress is that it doesn’t deal directly with the actions of the 47 Ronin- rather, it’s more concerned with the aftermath. The book opens with the 47 Ronin doing their samurai-choppy thing, and then switches to focus to Sano Ichiro, a government investigator tasked with figuring out just WTF happened….or else. According to the inside book cover, Rowland has written a whole series of books about Sano Ichiro- crime novels with katanas, basically. Thankfully, I was able to follow the plot of the book without having read the previous novels.

The book isn’t a ‘whodunit’ so much as ‘whydunit,’ to make up a new term. There’s no doubt the 47 Ronin killed a bunch of dudes- however, they’re pretty tight lipped about why. I found the whole investigative aspect to the aftermath of a revenge drama pretty interesting (at least at first), because it made me wonder what happened after the credits rolled on my favorite action movies.

Kill Bill aftermath

Somebody had to clean this up.

The other thing I was looking forward to was the juxtaposition of the samurai setting with the tropes of the detective novel- samurai fiction and westerns share strong thematic ties, so it’s not too much of a stretch to get to noir from there. Unfortunately, Rowland didn’t quite deliver. For the most part, the ‘investigation’ consists mainly of Sano (or sometimes his wife) roaming around and talking to various players in the drama, with occasional flashbacks. Said flashbacks differ slightly, depending on who’s doing the telling, which seems like something I’ve seen before…

Oh, that’s it.

I never really got a sense of Sano being a super brilliant investigator, or even a compelling one. He’s a firmly lawful good, ‘white hat’ kind of character, which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily- it just helps if there’s other characters to contrast his viewpoint. The whole thing came off as fairly stodgy and stilted throughout.

Sano’s not the only viewpoint character, either; he’s got a family, and so we get a fair number of chapters from his wife’s perspective as she helps in the investigation, and a couple more chapters written from the viewpoint of Sano’s 12 year old son, as he falls in lurve with the titular Ronin’s mistress. Those chapters in particular were a drag.

And then there’s Hinata.

Hinata is Sano’s sidekick, assisting in all the various investigations. He’s also ‘the muscle,’ in that he can kick just about anybody’s ass, if the need arises. The reason he can do this is because he knows mystical martial arts. This is a verbatim quote from the novel, one that Rowland uses more than once. It’s like if Watson knew the secrets of the Shadowless Kick technique. (Which would be pretty awesome, now that I think about it).

Now this, this is what threw me out of the novel. And it’s not even like Hinata’s badass at normal martial arts- he explicitly can track people by aura, and runs into several other dudes with similar ninja magic. It’s a damned gonzo concept, which is rad, but Rowland doesn’t do anything with the idea, which is not. Hinata’s basically a refugee from a shonen anime, trapped in an otherwise ‘normal’ setting. I think the novel would’ve been a lot more coherent in theme if Rowland kept the supernatural elements out entirely…or if she just went balls out with the supernatural kung fu, and had dudes punching each other into the moon or whatever. I mean, when you use the term “mystical martial arts,” you should pretty much admit you’re writing genre fiction, and just run with it.

Another thing that struck me about the book was its treatment of homosexuality. Which is ‘not good,’ to say the least. See, The Shogun (a fat, ineffective figurehead) is said to have a thing for young boys…a thing that’s mentioned nearly every time he shows up. On top of that, Sano’s primary rival at court attained his high position by being the Shogun’s lover. And on top of that, it’s revealed in the last third of the novel or so that the whole messy and convoluted series of events stems from one man’s desire to avenge his 12 year old son, who committed suicide after being raped by two samurai. Yeeeeah. I know just enough that homosexuality is regarded differently in Japanese culture…and I know enough to know pretty much that I don’t know anything past that. Even still, when the driving force of your plot can be boiled down to “because pederasty,” it’s going to raise some eyebrows.

So yeah. The Ronin’s Mistress surprised me, and not always in a good way. I’m not particularly inclined to track down the other books in the series- but at the same time, I suppose I wouldn’t actively avoid them, either. Maybe I just need to read one earlier in the series, where there’s not as much backstory to keep track of. Or maybe I just need to read the last one, where Hinata meets Ruroni Kenshin or something.

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