In this YA historical novel set in Japan’s Sengoku period, a girl who adores climbing attends an unusual school.
“Your mother sold you to me this morning.” With this, young Kano Murasaki, called Risuko (Squirrel) for her love of climbing, learns she’s to accompany imperious old Lady Chiyome’s palanquin. Risuko’s father was a samurai, a prestigious occupation in war-torn 16th-century Japan. After being disgraced, he had to find work as a scribe; he taught Risuko to read and write, but with him now dead, the family is near starving—and Risuko’s best option is to comply. The traveling party undergoes a cold and dangerous journey as it tries to dodge the fighting between rival warlords. Along the way, Risuko displays some of her abilities—not just climbing, but calligraphy, bird calls, and presence of mind when attacked. When they finally reach the Mochizuki compound, Risuko becomes a novice, believing that she’s being trained as a shrine attendant. There’s talk of initiates becoming kunoichi, which no one will explain: “you’ll just have to find out on your own.” At first, the novices perform only menial tasks, especially kitchen work, but they eventually receive lessons in music, singing, and dancing. But suspicion and intrigue (both political and romantic), plus attempted thievery and worse, tear apart the Mochizuki community, leading to a dramatic confrontation with the truth. Kudler (How Raven Brought Back the Light, 2014, etc.) draws on one of the most fascinating elements of Japan’s feudal period—the kunoichi, or female ninja. (Mochizuki Chiyome is a historical figure who trained young women as spies and assassins, using cover identities such as shrine attendants, servants, and prostitutes.) Also intriguing are the cultural details that Kudler weaves into his story, such as the Retreat, a small building where Mochizuki’s women stay during their periods. The characters are nicely varied and all the pieces fit into place deftly, such as how Risuko’s dance movements and kitchen skills can be used in fighting.
A tight, exciting, and thoughtful first volume in what promises to be a fine series about a female ninja.