June, 1565: When a killer murders the shogun’s cousin, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo are summoned to the shogun’s palace and ordered to find the killer. The evidence implicates Hiro’s friend and fellow shinobi, Kazu, who was working undercover at the shogunate; however, the victim’s wife, a suspicious maid, and even the shogun’s stable master also had reasons to want the victim dead.
The investigation reveals a plot to assassinate the shogun and depose the ruling Ashikaga clan. With enemy forces approaching Kyoto, and the murderer poised to strike again, Hiro and Father Mateo must produce the killer in time . . . or die in his place. Blade of the Samurai is a complex mystery that will transport readers to a thrilling and unforgettable adventure in sixteenth-century Japan.
I first became aware of Susan Spann when I came across her first novel Claws of the Cat last year. It immediately pinged a lot of the alerts on my radar: historical fiction, a murder mystery and an interesting setting in feudal Japan. Unfortunately I never came across the book, so I missed out on picking it up, but when I was approached about reviewing the second one I knew I had to say yes. For those of you who like me haven’t read the previous book: don’t worry Blade of the Samurai stands alone beautifully and makes for a very satisfying read.
The book is set in feudal Japan at the end of the sixteenth century. It’s an interesting era and one I don’t know that much about, as I’m more familiar – if only a smidgen – with its history a century later. I really enjoyed the setting and the way Spann evokes Kyoto, though beyond canals, bridges, wooden houses and sliding doors, she leaves it pretty nebulous on the whole. With an author writing in a culture different from their own, there’s always the risk of over explanation, to make sure that the reader understands all of the nuances and details included in the narrative. Spann doesn’t make this mistake, giving enough context to clarify meaning, but without turning into a textbook on Japanese history. She accomplishes this by using the nice device of having her narrator Hiro working as a translator for an outsider, one of the rare foreigners present in Japan, the Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo. This conceit allows Spann to comment on Japanese culture and society both through Hiro explaining it to Mateo and by having Hiro wince every time Mateo behaves in a not-Japanese manner, that had he been Japanese would have given offence. The one thing that made the text sometimes a little harder to grasp was the fact that some Japanese vocabulary used wasn’t translated. It turned out there was a glossary for these terms in the back, which I only found out after I’d finished the book, and while the gist of them was clear from their context, I found myself distracted by it.
As mentioned, the book’s narrator and main protagonist Hiro officially is a translator to Father Mateo, which makes him look at Japanese society with different eyes. But Hiro himself is somewhat of an outsider in and of himself already, due to being a shinobi, an assassin, which is a breed of men taught to hold themselves apart and furthermore by dint of his cover story, which is that he is a masterless samurai, a ronin, and as such is considered of lesser rank. This outsider status also helps to allow the reader into the story and this, for most readers, unfamiliar society. The samurai treat him with disdain and he’s often at a disadvantage socially speaking, especially in this story where much of the investigation takes place within the Shogun palace, a place peopled by those of the Samurai class. Hiro’s unique training has also made him somewhat blind to class boundaries, something that the palace officials he has to deal with observe with a jaundiced eye. In a society underpinned by the principle of honour, pretending to be someone he’s not and having to tolerate disrespect is hard for Hiro and I liked that Spann shows him having to force himself to not react.
Hiro’s employer, Father Mateo is an interesting character. A devout man of staunch faith, he’s nevertheless quite flexible in his thinking, though somewhat uncaring about giving offence to his hosts through his Western manners. It’s also in elements of Father Mateo’s household that the story’s standalone character falls down the most. Blade of the Samurai never repeats the explanation for how and why Hiro comes to serve as Mateo’s bodyguard, only that he has a fat contract to do so and that as a consequence his life is linked to that of Mateo. Similarly, it was never quite clear to me whether Ana, the housekeeper, was Japanese or Portuguese. From her behaviour I’d say Japanese, however, Ana seemed more like a Portuguese name. If she is Portuguese, how did she end up in Japan? In the grand scheme of things not knowing these details doesn’t affect the plot, but they did shake me from the narrative several times.
The mystery was tightly plotted. The murder was somewhat of a locked-room mystery, with the attendant back and forth between suspects. I loved the concept and especially seeing how Hiro’s theories develop. Of course the initial main suspect, Kazu, is Hiro’s friend and he really wants to believe in his innocence, especially considering he’s a shinobi from the same clan. Hiro can completely absolve him of guilt at first and as a consequence stays suspicious of Kazu, something that almost ruins their friendship. I really loved the interplay between these to, as I did the relationship between Hiro and Mateo, which is more a friendship than anything else. I kept second guessing myself as to who the real culprit was and the final reveal was amazing. I really liked the way the plot played out and it made for a very satisfying ending.
Blade of the Samurai was a terrific read, with only some minor quibbles. If you enjoy well-plotted historical crime fiction then I recommend you take a look at this one as it is highly entertaining. The book has convinced me I’ll have to track down a copy of Claws of the Cat at some point to learn how Hiro and Mateo first met. And I sincerely hope there’ll be many more adventures in the Shinobi Mysteries, but we’re guaranteed at least one more due out next year. Until then you can get caught up with Claws of the Cat and Blade of the Samurai.
A Fantastical Librarian is just one of the stops on this blog tour. Please visit the other stops for different views on the book, author interviews, guest posts, and giveaways.
Monday, July 7 – Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Tuesday, July 8 – Review at Closed the Cover
Wednesday, July 9 – Review at Staircase Wit
Wednesday, July 9 – Guest Post & Giveaway at So Many Precious Books, So Little Time
Thursday, July 10 – Review at Boolover Book Reviews
Monday, July 14 – Review at Bibliophilia, Please
Wednesday, July 16 – Review at Buried Under Books
Thursday, July 17 – Review at Flashlight Commentary (Claws of the Cat)
Thursday, July 17 – Spotlight at Reviews by Molly
Friday, July 18 – Review at History Undressed
Monday, July 21 – Review at Oh, For the Hook of a Book
Tuesday, July 22 – Review at Judith Starkston
Tuesday, July 22 – Interview at Oh, For the Hook of a Book
Wednesday, July 23 – Review at The True Book Addict
Thursday, July 24 – Interview at Layered Pages
Monday, July 28 – Guest Post & Giveaway at Historical Fiction Connection
Tuesday, July 29 – Review at Flashlight Commentary
Wednesday, July 30 – Review at Princess of Eboli
Thursday, July 31 – Review at A Fantastical Librarian
Friday, August 1 – Review at Reading the Ages