The Fire Kimono (Sano Ichiro Series #13)

The Fire Kimono (Sano Ichiro Series #13)

4.8 10
by Laura Joh Rowland

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Japan, March 1700. The strife between Sano Ichiro, the samurai detective who has risen to power in the shogun’s court, and his enemies has escalated to the brink of war. Called away from the crisis by the shogun’s orders to investigate a mysterious skeleton, Sano and his wife, Reiko, must confront dangerous, long-buried secrets. What was Sano’s

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Japan, March 1700. The strife between Sano Ichiro, the samurai detective who has risen to power in the shogun’s court, and his enemies has escalated to the brink of war. Called away from the crisis by the shogun’s orders to investigate a mysterious skeleton, Sano and his wife, Reiko, must confront dangerous, long-buried secrets. What was Sano’s own mother doing on the night when a burning kimono ignited a blaze that nearly destroyed the city? The shogun gives Sano and Reiko just three days to find out—or risk losing not only their position at court but their families’ lives as well.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Set in 1700, Rowland's outstanding 13th Sano Ichiro mystery (after 2007's The Snow Empress) finds Sano, whom the shogun raised to the rank of chamberlain several books back, waging a fierce struggle with his chief rival, Lord Matsudaira. The stakes are raised at the outset when Matsudaira's forces almost succeed in killing Sano's wife and occasional sleuthing partner, Reiko. The chamberlain soon suspects that someone else may have been behind the attack, but soon he faces a more daunting task-proving his mother innocent of the murder of one of the shogun's cousins, who vanished during the great fire that destroyed much of Edo and whose skeletal remains were just uncovered by chance. Sano must now question everything he thought he knew about his mother, with his own family facing execution should she be found guilty. Rowland has given her hero his greatest challenge yet in this suspenseful look at feudal Japan. (Nov.)

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School Library Journal

Adult/High School

Sano Ichiro, second in command to the shogun, is preparing for war against his enemy, Lord Matsudaira. The shogun is weak and unable to rule effectively and the two wage battle behind his back, each wanting to stop the other from gaining more power. In the thick of this enmity, a skeleton is unearthed and discovered to be the body of the shogun's cousin, murdered 40 years earlier. Sano is sent to investigate, only to find that his own mother is implicated. He must not only save her from execution, but also come to terms with the secrets she's held all his life. This turn of events provides Lord Matsudaira with the fodder he needs to try to oust Sano. The story threads are neatly tied up to create a satisfactory ending that leaves readers wanting more about these all-too-human characters. This series stars Sano and his wife, Reiko, who solve mysteries. The book can be read on its own, but it would be a richer experience for teens familiar with the preceding titles. The plot is complicated, with many auxiliary stories taking place alongside the thread of the mystery. Rowland brings Sano, his wife, a cast of supporting characters, and 18th-century Japan to life with a sweet, simple writing style.-Connie Williams, Kenilworth Jr. High, Petaluma, CA

Kirkus Reviews

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 constantlyup against the machinations of an old and exiled enemy.

Far from being distracting, the historic setting is mesmerizing. Great escape fiction.

From the Publisher

“Pure takes us to an exotic time and place and overwhelms us with intrigue, romance, adventure and frequent bloodshed” —The Washington Post

“Outstanding...Rowland has given her hero his greatest challenge yet in this suspenseful look at feudal Japan.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“An exciting and enthralling story set in a vividly rendered setting. I was captured by it from the moment a Shinto priest, buffeted by winds, his robe flapping 'like a swan in mad flight,' discovers those buried remains heaved from the earth.” —The Boston Globe

“The historic setting is mesmerizing. Great escape fiction. ” —Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

Gale Group
Publication date:
Sano Ichiro Series, #13
Edition description:
Large Print
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Fire Kimono

By Laura Joh Rowland

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2008 Laura Joh Rowland
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4531-8


Lady Reiko rarely left home, and never without an army for protection.

In the past few months, the strife between her husband, Chamberlain Sano, and his rival, Lord Matsudaira, had escalated drastically. Their troops brawled in the streets of Edo, eager for war. No one was safe; anyone could be caught in the violence.

Riding in a palanquin through the city, Reiko peered through the window shutters. Her mounted guards blocked her view of the high walls and roofed gates of the mansions in the official district. All she could see were armored legs astride moving horse flanks. Her bearers marched in time with the steps of the foot soldiers in her entourage, which numbered fifty armed men in all. Reiko leaned back on the cushions and sighed.

Not a glimpse of the city's color and bustle or breath of spring air could reach her. Yet these precautions were vital. Last winter, Lord Matsudaira had served notice that Sano's family wasn't off-limits in the power struggle. He'd had Sano and Reiko's then-eight-year-old son, Masahiro, kidnapped and sent to the far north. Knowing that she might be the next target, Reiko left Sano's estate inside Edo Castle only on the most serious business.

Her aunt had died, and although they hadn't been close, the woman had been kind to Reiko during her childhood. That fact, plus family duty, had obligated Reiko to brave venturing outside to attend the funeral. Now her procession suddenly slowed. Guards at the front ordered, "Get out of the way!"

She risked opening the shutters a crack and saw two oxen yoked to a cart filled with lumber blocking an intersection. Such carts, owned by the government, were the only wheeled vehicles permitted in Japan. Forcing everyone to travel by horse or by foot prevented troop movements and insurrection—at least in theory. Soldiers behind her called to the others, "Keep going, don't stop!" The front guards yelled, "Move it now, or die!"

A jarring thud hit the top of the palanquin. Reiko gasped as her bearers wobbled under the extra weight. One of them shouted, "There's a man on the roof!"

The man must have jumped off the wall. While her guards shouted and jostled around her palanquin, she felt another thud as another man landed.

"Ambush!" shouted the guards.

The doors of the palanquin burst open. Reiko screamed. Her attackers—two young samurai with knives gripped in their teeth—swung upside down from the roof at her. As she drew the dagger she wore in a sheath strapped to her arm under her sleeve, they flipped into the palanquin, transferring their knives from teeth to hands.

"Help!" Reiko shrank into the corner and lashed her dagger at her attackers.

Her blade cut their arms. They seemed not to care. Blind savagery glazed their eyes as they slashed at her. Their hot breath and pungent sweat filled the palanquin. Reiko saw the crests stamped on their kimonos. They were Lord Matsudaira's men, no surprise. She frantically parried against their blades. One grazed her face. Outside, swords clashed while her guards fought off more Matsudaira troops who'd joined the attack. The combatants' bodies thumped against the palanquin. Horses whinnied as the battle raged.

"Turn around!" her guard captain shouted. "Head back to the castle! Somebody get those bastards off Lady Reiko!"

Reiko heard her chief bodyguard, Lieutenant Asukai, call her name. As her attackers pinned her arms and she kicked at them, he lunged into the palanquin and seized one of the men. The palanquin veered in a jerky about-face. The bearers broke into a run.

Lieutenant Asukai dragged the man outside. They tumbled into the street under the horses' skittering hooves and the feet of the battling soldiers. The attacker still inside threw himself on top of Reiko. He clutched the wrist of her hand that held the dagger. His weight immobilized her. She desperately thrashed and writhed, beating at him with her free left hand. His blade strained toward her throat. Reiko could see her terrified face reflected in the shiny steel.

"Hold on, Lady Reiko, I'm coming!" Lieutenant Asukai shouted.

He grabbed her attacker's legs. Reiko struck at the man's face and sank her fingernails into his eyes. He screamed, let go of her, and reared up. Lieutenant Asukai yanked at his legs until he flew backward out of the palanquin, bleeding from the eyes, knife raised, mouth yowling.

Reiko saw the portals of Edo Castle ahead, promising sanctuary. The castle was neutral territory in the conflict between Sano and Lord Matsudaira, by tacit, mutual agreement. They both lived inside it; neither wanted war on his own doorstep. The sentries stared in amazement at Reiko's palanquin hurtling toward them and the battle that trailed it like unruly streamers.

"Let us in!" Lieutenant Asukai shouted, running beside Reiko.

The sentries swung open the huge, iron-banded gate. Winded and puffing, the bearers staggered carrying the palanquin through it. The gate slammed shut. Reiko sighed in relief.

"That was too close a call," Sano said.

He crouched on the floor beside Reiko, in their private chamber, watching grimly as the doctor dabbed medicinal ointment on the cut on her cheek. First his son kidnapped, now his wife ambushed. Lord Matsudaira had gone too far. Sano tasted fury as raw as blood.

Reiko managed a brave smile. "It's just a scratch. I'm fine, really." The doctor finished, gathered up his medicine chest, and departed. Reiko spoke to Masahiro, who knelt near her. "I don't look half as bad as you do."

Masahiro, nine years old, had come running when he'd heard about the attack. His white martial arts practice uniform was dirty from wrestling on the ground; he sported cuts and scrapes on his hands, arms, and knees. A fading purple bruise surrounded his left eye. Ever since his abduction, Masahiro had pursued his martial arts studies with punishing vigor, the better to defend himself. This was no longer just a game he was good at, but a matter of life and death.

Now he said, "Don't joke, Mama." His tone was serious, reproving, and adult. "You could have been killed."

Sano hadn't wanted Masahiro to know about the attack, had wanted to shield him from adult problems. But Masahiro had a way of finding out what happened; his sharp ears and his nose for information rivaled those of any spy in the government intelligence service. And he'd matured a lot during his experience in Ezogashima. Having survived it by his own wits and courage, he'd earned himself a new place in their family. Sano beheld his son with a mixture of love, pride, and sorrow.

He could see Reiko in the shape of Masahiro's eyes, and himself in the set of his jaw; but Masahiro was his own, unique person, and he was growing up too fast. There was little room for childhood in their harsh world.

"Masahiro is right," Sano said to Reiko. The boy sat straighter, gladdened by his father's approval. Sano remembered looking up to and aspiring to be like his own father, now dead eleven years. How long before Masahiro became aware of his failings and the hero-worship ended? "You can't go out again."

"Yes," seconded Masahiro. "You have to stay home."

Reiko had opened her mouth to object, then closed it, taken aback by his authority. Sano hid a rueful smile. She would need to get used to having two men telling her what to do. This time she conceded. "For how long?"

She spoke as if she didn't expect Sano to answer, and he didn't. He only wished he knew how long this feud with Lord Matsudaira would go on.

Unhappiness shadowed her beautiful face. "What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to see Lord Matsudaira," Sano said.

"Are you going to declare war on him?" Reiko asked.

Excitement charged the air as she and Masahiro waited for Sano's reply. They thirsted for a showdown as much as Sano did. But Sano knew the odds better than they, and he said, "No."

Indignation appeared on their faces. Reiko said, "Not even after what Lord Matsudaira did to my son?"

"And to my mother?" Masahiro said.

"It's not the time for me to challenge Lord Matsudaira in battle," Sano said. "His troops outnumber mine by too many."

Sano's army had shrunk drastically since last autumn. He'd come home from Ezogashima to discover that he'd lost entire regiments during his absence. Without Sano here to keep them in line and their morale up, Lord Matsudaira had easily won them over. That was just as Lord Matsudaira had planned when he'd kidnapped Masahiro, and Sano had gone to Ezogashima to rescue his son.

"And I can't afford to run a war for more than a few months." Sano had also lost key allies among the daimyo, the feudal lords he'd counted on to fund a military venture.

"It can't be that bad," Reiko said. "You still have many allies." She named some, all wealthy, powerful daimyo with large armies. "You can win."

"Let's declare war!" Masahiro's face shone with zeal and confidence in Sano. "You're not afraid of Lord Matsudaira."

Sano dreaded the day when he would see Masahiro begin to doubt him. Now he needed to give Masahiro a lesson as difficult to teach as to learn.

"Of course I'm afraid," Sano said, even though he hated admitting fear. "A samurai who isn't afraid of a dangerous enemy isn't a hero; he's a fool." More and more often, Sano heard his own father's words coming out of his mouth. "A truly courageous samurai masters his fear."

Impatient, hardly listening, Masahiro jumped up and paced back and forth, Reiko's habit when excited. "I'll ride into battle with you. Together we'll defeat Lord Matsudaira."

Sano ached with pride in his son's spirit. Reiko looked aghast. "You can't go to battle. You're not even fifteen yet!"

Fifteen was the age at which samurai boys officially became adults, when the forelock that Masahiro wore tied above his brow would be shaved during his manhood ceremony.

"A war could last six more years until he is," Sano pointed out. "The wars that ended with the Tokugawa on top went on for almost a century."

"I'm almost as tall as a lot of boys who are fifteen," Masahiro said, standing still and drawing himself up to his full height. "And I'm a better fighter."

"You're also too modest," Reiko said, tart in her fear for him. She turned to Sano. "All right, I don't want a war, either." She'd clearly lost her appetite for it now that she saw her son headed for the front lines. "But if you're not declaring war on Lord Matsudaira, why go to see him?"

"To propose a truce. To make peace if I can."

Reiko stared in disbelief. "You mean you're going to let him get away with what he's done?"

"He deserves to be punished!" Masahiro clenched his fists.

"The country doesn't," Sano said. "If we go on like this, there will eventually be war, and Japan will suffer. War involves more than the two top men fighting it. Should it spread beyond Edo, cities and villages everywhere will be destroyed. Thousands of innocent people will die."

"I don't care," Masahiro said stubbornly.

He was too young for the consequences of war to seem real to him, Sano thought. Despite the maturity forced on him, Masahiro was a child, with a child's limited understanding.

"As the shogun's second-in-command, I have to care," Sano said. "It's my duty to protect the country and the people. And when you inherit my position, it will be your duty."

Masahiro nodded, swelling with pride at the thought that he would someday succeed his father. Hoping he could hold his position long enough to pass it on, Sano rose to go.

Sano summoned Hirata—his chief retainer—and Detectives Marume and Fukida, his two top personal bodyguards. Accompanied by a squadron of troops, they went to the special compound inside Edo Castle where the Tokugawa-branch clan members lived. Lord Matsudaira, the shogun's cousin, had the largest estate. Sentries were posted outside its gate, at intervals along the high stone walls, and in the watchtowers. When they saw Sano's party coming, their hands flashed to their swords.

"I want to see Lord Matsudaira," Sano told the four gate sentries.

Their leader said, "With all due respect, Honorable Chamberlain, you have a lot of nerve coming here. After what you've done today."

"After what he's done?" Hirata said. "What are you talking about?"

Noting the mystified expressions of Sano and his companions, the man smirked. "Looks like you and your people have lost your memories, Chamberlain Sano. Well, don't worry; Lord Matsudaira will fill in the blank spaces."

He sent a runner to tell Lord Matsudaira that Sano was here. As other guards opened the gate and escorted Sano's party inside, Sano exchanged perturbed glances with Hirata, Marume, and Fukida. This was a strange reception that didn't bode well for their peace mission.

They moved through courtyards and passages lined with armed, hostile soldiers. If not for the prohibition against violence inside Edo Castle, they would have attacked Sano. The air smelled of gunpowder.

Sano found Lord Matsudaira waiting in his reception room. Flanked by bodyguards, with troops stationed along the walls, Lord Matsudaira stood on the dais. His posture was arrogant, his expression murderous. But he was thinner, and visibly older, than when Sano had left for Ezogashima only six months ago. The strain of building his army, juggling allies, and battling treachery had carved new lines in his strong-featured face. The fire in his eyes verged on fever.

"What in hell do you want?" he demanded.

"I have a proposition to make," Sano said, even as his hatred toward his enemy flared. He hadn't started this quarrel; he'd been willing to work with Lord Matsudaira to serve the shogun, their master. It was Lord Matsudaira who wanted to be shogun himself, who saw Sano's power as a threat. "I'll excuse your attack this morning, if you'll agree to a truce."

Astonishment raised Lord Matsudaira's eyebrows. "A truce? Are you insane? And I didn't attack you this morning."

Infuriated by the denial, Sano said, "Your men ambushed my wife and tried to kill her. Or have you forgotten you sent them?"

Lord Matsudaira seemed as much confused as scornful. "I didn't." He pointed a finger at Sano. "It was you who just sent your men to kill my wife."

Sano thought of what the sentries had said. Consternation filled him. "You'd better explain what happened."

"Playing innocent, eh?" Lord Matsudaira's face darkened with anger. "I suppose you came to gloat over what you've done. Well, all right, I'll show you. Come."

Beckoning, he stalked outside. His troops herded Sano's party after him, into the garden. More troops patrolled amid azalea bushes in bright red bloom. Increasingly baffled, Sano followed Lord Matsudaira to the heart of the estate, a group of low buildings connected by covered corridors. One lay half in ruins, walls broken, the tile roof collapsed. The ruins were covered by black soot. Servants labored, cleaning up the mess.

"These are the women's quarters," Lord Matsudaira said, gesturing angrily. "My wife was inside. She has burns all over her. It's a miracle she wasn't killed. One of her attendants was." He glared at Sano. "Don't say it's not your fault."

"It isn't," Sano said, as disturbed as sincere.

"No more lies! Two of your men sneaked into this estate and threw jars of kerosene plugged with burning rags into the windows. My men caught them running away from the explosion. See for yourself."

Lord Matsudaira led Sano to a blanket spread on the charred grass near the ruins. He flung back the blanket, exposing two young samurai who lay dead and bloody.

"They're not mine. I've never seen them before in my life." Sano turned to Hirata, Marume, and his other men; they shook their heads.

"You have so many retainers that you don't know everyone who works for you," Lord Matsudaira said. "Look at the crests on their clothes." He pointed at Sano's flying-crane insignias. "They're yours, all right."

Sano didn't see any point in arguing; Lord Matsudaira would never believe him. "Well, I have two bodies of men that my troops caught and killed after they tried to stab my wife. They're wearing your crests."

"I had nothing to do with that," Lord Matsudaira protested. "Whatever business I have with you, I would never attack your woman." His tone scorned that as cowardly, dishonorable, beneath him. "This is the first I've heard of it."


Excerpted from The Fire Kimono by Laura Joh Rowland. Copyright © 2008 Laura Joh Rowland. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

LAURA JOH ROWLAND is the author of twelve previous Sano Ichiro thrillers, including The Snow Empress, which Publishers Weekly chose as one of the Best Mysteries of 2007. She lives in New Orleans.

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The Fire Kimono (Sano Ichiro Series #13) 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Gawain More than 1 year ago
I am very bias when it comes to the Sano Ichiro series as I have read them all, and liked everyone of them. Eventhough I do not have a favorite, Fire Kimono, is one of my top five stories.
Now that his old enemy Yanagisawa has returned (the idiot Shogun has forgiven him for everything), and Sano is now sharing the dubious title of Chamberlain with him - the next book by Ms. Rowland should be very interesting. I found that Sano's mother should have a past (doesn't everyone)to be very revealing and appropriate which explains the real reason she did not want to live inside the castle gates with Sano after his marriage. Again, Sano has to save her and his family from a horrible death (doesn't he always) which will become additional story plot as Rowland develops Sano's mother and her lost love.
Steveb624 More than 1 year ago
I have been a big fan of the Sano Ichiro series. My only problem is that when I start one of these books, I get nothing else done. I have been to Japan (when I was in the Army)and the places described are historically accurate. I think the author has a wonderful story telling ability. I would recommend that the reader start with the first book (Shinju)to get the basics of the series. I bought the first book for a dollar at the bargain book store, and have bought all the others at B & N.
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Mildred More than 1 year ago
I finished this book too soon.... Great Samurai-Fiction book. Sano is my hero, Yanagisawa is the evil one, but I kind of miss him when he is not around. Great book. Can't wait for her next book "The Cloud Pavilion" to be out at the bookstore.
Lennymarine More than 1 year ago
As you see I'm a fan of her books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Asian_hist_reader More than 1 year ago
I expected Yanagisawa to return, but you will never expect the rest. This book keeps the pages turning. In a matter of three nights I had it finished. I will be waiting in suspense for number 14 of this series.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1700 supporters of Lord Matsudaira almost kill Lady Reiko during an attack on her. Chamberlain Sano Ichiro is outraged on the assault of his beloved wife and vows vengeance against his despicable rival Matsudaira although his adversary denies any involvement. However, the samurai has to put aside his growing suspicion that a third party attacked his wife when the Shogun orders Sano to investigate the finding of a body buried near a Shinto shrine. Items uncovered next to the corpse imply the deceased is the Shogun's cousin who vanished without a trace four decades ago during an inferno that devastated much of Edo. As the husband and wife investigative team probe the case in which the shogun concedes reluctantly three days to them, they find evidence that implicates Sano's mother Etsuko with the murder. THE FIRE KIMONO is one of the best Ichiro Japanese historical thrillers, which says a lot as this long running saga is known for its consistent excellence. The story line contains two strong twists, but it is the second one that shocks the samurai hero as his belief system is torn asunder with what he learns about his mother. Fans will enjoy this super entry as Sano and Reiko have three days to prove his mom was not the bearer of the deadly FIRE KIMONO who killed the shogun's cousin and destroyed Edo; but every clue seems to lead to the conclusion she is. Harriet Klausner