A toppled tree exposes the bones of a boy murdered 43 years earlier in the heat of the great 17th-century fire that leveled Edo, the huge predecessor to Tokyo.
Returning to the familiar Japan of her long-running samurai saga after a side trip to 19th-century England, Rowland (The Snow Empress, 2007, etc.) drops her readers in the midst of red-hot court intrigue. Beautiful, clever, part-time detective Reiko’s palanquin is attacked in the streets by men wearing the badge of her husband Sano Ichiro’s arch rival Lord Matsudaira. Within a short time Matsudaira’s household is bombed by men seemingly in the employ of Sano, the brilliant former policeman who has worked his way to the right hand of the Shogun. Sano and Matsudaira are indeed at each others’ throats, but privately, out of sight of the boss and his boyfriend. The attacks have been masterminded by someone outside the Shogun’s household. Before things are sorted out, the rivals are summoned to court where the Shogun announces the discovery of the bones of his long dead young kinsman Tokugawa Tadadoshi, and he orders Sano to get to the bottom of the murder. Sano’s investigation is hampered from the beginning by the deadly competition with Matsudaira. It then becomes a catastrophe when evidence points to Sano’s mother Etsuko as the prime suspect. Sano and Reiko work separately to reveal the aristocratic and very romantic past at the heart of a love triangle that Etsuko has kept hidden from her son, as well as her involvement in the household of the murdered youth. The secrets, which lie in the chaos of the burning of Edo 43 years earlier, must come out if Etsuko is to avoid execution, but Sano’s frantic sleuthing runs constantly up against the machinations of an old and exiled enemy.
Far from being distracting, the historic setting is mesmerizing. Great escape fiction.