Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

The Incense Game (Sano Ichiro Series #16)

The Incense Game (Sano Ichiro Series #16)

4.6 8
by Laura Joh Rowland

See All Formats & Editions

Winner of RT Magazine's Reviewers' Choice Award for Best Historical Mystery

In the wake of a terrifying earthquake, Sano Ichiro races to solve a crime that could bring down the shogun's regime

When a massive earthquake devastates Japan in 1703, even the shogun's carefully regulated court is left teetering on the brink of chaos. This is no time


Winner of RT Magazine's Reviewers' Choice Award for Best Historical Mystery

In the wake of a terrifying earthquake, Sano Ichiro races to solve a crime that could bring down the shogun's regime

When a massive earthquake devastates Japan in 1703, even the shogun's carefully regulated court is left teetering on the brink of chaos. This is no time for a murder investigation—except when a nobleman's daughters are found dead from incense poisoning and their father threatens to topple the regime unless Sano Ichiro tracks down the killer.

As Sano and his wife strive to solve the case in a world that is crumbling around them, Laura Joh Rowland—author of one of the "five best historical mystery novels" (The Wall Street Journal)—brings us her most powerful and evocative thriller set in Feudal Japan yet, The Incense Game.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A natural disaster serves as the focal point for Rowland’s stellar 16th whodunit set in feudal Japan (after 2011’s The Ronin’s Mistress). In 1703, an earthquake devastates the city of Edo, claiming thousands of lives and causing major structural damage. Recovery efforts yield the bodies of two sisters and another woman, who perished playing the incense game, in which participants “burned incense samples, smelled the smoke, and attempted to guess what type they were.” Evidence that the incense was poisoned leads Lord Hosokawa, the powerful father of the two sisters, to blackmail Sano Ichiro, chamberlain to the shogun, into finding his daughters’ killer. Should Sano fail to do so, Hosokawa will ally himself with the nobles looking to topple the shogun, taking advantage of the rampant weaknesses of the regime, which the earthquake exacerbated. Once again, Rowland sets the bar high for her hero, who must navigate treacherous political shoals as well as deduce the killer’s identity. Agent: Pam Ahearn, the Ahearn Agency. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
Starred Review. "...stellar... Once again, Rowland sets the bar high for her hero, who must navigate treacherous political shoals as well as deduce the killer's identity." - Publishers Weekly
Library Journal
At the dawn of the 18th century, a devastating earthquake strikes Japan. Amidst the chaos, a murderer attacks and Sano and his wife must find the killer in Rowland's 16th thrilling series entry (after last year's The Ronin's Mistress).

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Sano Ichiro Series , #16
Sold by:
Sales rank:
File size:
1 MB

Read an Excerpt

The Incense Game

A Novel of Feudal Japan

By Laura Joh Rowland

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Laura Joh Rowland
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-01528-0


A MONTH AFTER the earthquake, Edo was a landscape from hell. Entire neighborhoods were leveled. The few intact areas stood like islands amid a sea of wreckage. Edo Castle resembled a beehive after a monster has shaken and mauled it to steal the honey. Up and down the hill, laborers swarmed, cleaning up timbers, plaster, and roof tiles from fallen buildings. The cold air rang with their shouts, the din from their shovels and hammers, and the rattle of the oxcarts that carried the debris downhill. Dust hazed a wintry blue sky darkened by smoke that rose from bonfires as Edo's million people — the majority now homeless — tried to keep warm.

Accompanied by troops, officials, and secretaries, Sano inspected the palace. His chief bodyguard, Detective Marume, walked ahead of him, clearing a path through crowds of porters hauling planks. Sano strode through gardens once beautifully landscaped, now awash in mud and manure, while men sawed boards, mixed plaster, and lugged supplies. Much of the huge complex had collapsed during the earthquake. Although the wreckage had been cleared away, new framework for only one section — the shogun's private chambers — had been erected. Other sections were nothing but bare foundations. Sections that hadn't collapsed leaned precariously.

"When can you finish?" Sano asked the chief architect.

"I wish I knew." One of thousands of samurai officials in the bakufu — Japan's military government — the architect had the grimy, haggard appearance of them all, including Sano. They'd been working day and night to rebuild the castle and the city and help the survivors of the earthquake. "We haven't enough skilled carpenters, or building materials, or food for the workers. Can you get us some more?"

"I'll try." Sano was in charge of the rebuilding and disaster relief. People came to him for everything. "But I can't make any promises. The other carpenters are busy fixing the bridges." Most of the bridges that spanned Edo's rivers and canals were down; movement through the city was severely limited. "I've ordered building materials from the provinces, but they'll be slow getting here because the bridges along the highways are down. Food shipments are delayed, too." Would that they arrived before a famine started! Much of Edo's food supply had been destroyed by the fires, and what remained was quickly dwindling.

A clerk carrying a scroll hurried up to Sano. "Excuse me, Honorable Chamberlain, here is an urgent communication."

Sano unfurled the scroll and read it. His spirits sank lower. "The death toll in Edo is now at three thousand," he said to Marume.

Every new count was higher than the last. This was the worst disaster Sano had ever seen. He still couldn't believe it had happened.

Sano continued reading. "There's more bad news. The treasury is already seriously depleted by earthquake relief and repairs." The Tokugawa regime, which had endured for a century, was nearing insolvency.

Marume didn't answer. Once Sano could have counted on him to make humorous remarks that lightened the direst occasions. But Marume's partner, Fukida, was among the casualties, killed when the barracks at Sano's estate collapsed. Sano thought back to that terrible night, when he'd led the search for victims in the ruins of Edo Castle. He remembered Marume sobbing over Fukida's broken body. The two men had been like brothers. Marume seemed a ghost of himself. His eyes were darkly shadowed. He never smiled anymore.

Sano felt guilty that his own wife and children were alive and well, when Marume and so many others had suffered such grievous losses. And he missed Detective Fukida, who'd been one of his favorite, most trusted retainers. Although he customarily had two bodyguards, Sano hadn't assigned Marume a new partner. He didn't have the heart. Now he felt a wave of exhaustion so powerful that he swayed. He hadn't had a full night's sleep in a month. Closing his eyes, he took a moment's nap on his feet. He couldn't keep up this pace for much longer.

He was forty-six years old, and he felt like a hundred.

Edo had risen from disasters in the past, most notably the Great Fire almost five decades ago. Would Edo rise again? If only Sano could pull it up from the ruins with the strength of his own hands and will!

Another messenger came running toward Sano. "Excuse me, Honorable Chamberlain, His Excellency the Shogun wants to see you, right now!"

* * *

THE SHOGUN'S TEMPORARY quarters were in a minimally damaged guesthouse. A few cracks in its plaster façade had been patched, a few broken roof tiles replaced. Pine trees and a stone wall screened it from the disorder everywhere else in the castle. Sano entered the small reception room, which was stifling hot from the lanterns and charcoal braziers that surrounded the two men seated on the dais. Both men were bundled in quilts up to the chin. The shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, wore a silk scarf around his head under the cylindrical black cap that proclaimed his rank. An angry pink spot on each withered cheek brightened the pallor of his weak, pouting face.

"I've been waiting for, ahh, more than an hour," he said as Sano knelt on the tatami floor and bowed. Intolerant of disruption under the best circumstances, the shogun had been thoroughly unhinged by the earthquake. He viewed it as a personal affront, and he had more complaints every time Sano saw him. "Why does it always take so long for you to be fetched?"

He hadn't seen the devastation created by the earthquake, or how much work there was to do, because he never left his quarters. He vaguely knew that many of his subjects had died and many more had lost their homes, but all he really cared about was his own convenience. A mere month after the disaster, he thought everything should snap back to normal and everyone be restored to his beck and call.

"My apologies, Your Excellency," Sano said. A samurai must serve his lord respectfully and unstintingly, no matter how thin his patience was stretched. That was Bushido, the warrior code of honor that Sano lived by. He turned to the other man on the dais, the shogun's nephew. "Greetings, Honorable Lord Ienobu."

"Greetings," Ienobu said, his voice a tight rasp that sounded squeezed out of his stunted, humpbacked body. He had an abnormally small lower jaw, which made his upper teeth protrude. At age forty-two he looked a decade older. Rumor said he had a hereditary, degenerative bone condition that caused him chronic pain. No one knew for sure except his physician, a blind acupuncturist. No one spoke openly about his condition because he was a Tokugawa clan member — the only son of the shogun's deceased older brother Tsunashige — albeit one of dubious status.

His father's birth and death had been shrouded in mystery. His mother had been a chambermaid, who'd borne Ienobu when his father was quite young. His parentage was kept secret lest it jeopardize his father's betrothal to a noblewoman. Ienobu had been brought up by a family retainer and given the retainer's surname. Not until Ienobu was eight years old, and his father's noble wife died, was he recognized as Tsunashige's son and heir and a true member of the Tokugawa ruling clan. Not until this past year had Ienobu emerged from his luxurious villa to renew his slight childhood acquaintance with the shogun, who was sixteen years his senior.

The shogun said to Ienobu, "Chamberlain Sano leaves me here all by myself. But at least I have you, Nephew."

"Yes." Ienobu smiled; his lips stretched around his protruding teeth. "I'm glad to help you through this difficult time."

Sano thought Ienobu had taken advantage of the earthquake to get close to the shogun. With all the court officials busy at work, there was less competition for the shogun's favor than usual. And Sano doubted it was a coincidence that Ienobu had appeared on the scene ten months ago, after the shogun's then favorite male lover, Yoritomo, had died suddenly. That was when Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu — father of Yoritomo, former chamberlain, and long-standing chief advisor to the shogun — had relinquished his control over the government and gone into seclusion. Sano wondered what Yanagisawa, his longtime enemy, was doing, but felt thankful not to have to worry about him. Yanagisawa's absence had left a political vacuum that Ienobu had filled. Sano suspected that Ienobu had designs on the succession. Ienobu's pedigree made him a logical candidate to become the next dictator, since the shogun had failed to produce a direct blood heir.

But today Sano didn't have time for speculation about Ienobu. "What can I do for you, Your Excellency?" he said, hoping to get it out of the way fast.

"You can answer a question," the shogun said. "Where is everybody?"

It was the question that everyone had been hoping the shogun wouldn't ask. "Whom do you mean, Your Excellency?" Sano said, buying himself time to think how to defuse a dangerous situation.

"My usual attendants and servants," the shogun said. "They've been, ahh, very scarce lately. Some of my boys are missing, too." An enthusiastic practitioner of manly love, he had numerous young male concubines. "And I don't recall seeing some of my, ahh, most important officials in a while. I'm aware that their offices in the palace were damaged and they have to, ahh, work from wherever they're living, but I should think they would come and see me every so often. Where have they gone?"

No one wanted to tell the shogun how many casualties his regime had sustained during the earthquake. Soon after it, he'd greeted the news of each death with attacks of hysteria that made him so ill, everyone feared he would die. The Council of Elders, Japan's chief governing body, had ordered that he wasn't to be apprised of any more deaths. He'd calmed down and been satisfied to believe that the people he missed were simply busy elsewhere.

Until now.

Ienobu hunched forward. He reminded Sano of a vulture. Sano gave up on deception, partly because he didn't like lying, partly because he was tired of cosseting the shogun. "They're dead, Your Excellency."

A strange look came over the shogun's face, a mixture of horror and chagrin. Sano saw that he'd known all along but hoped it wasn't true. "How many people in the government died?" the shogun asked in a small voice.

"Three hundred and fifty-one, so far," Sano said. "Some are still unaccounted for." He recited the names of dead ministers, functionaries, and army officers, onetime pillars of the regime.

"Merciful Buddha," the shogun whispered, his complexion ashen. "This is a terrible, terrible blow for me!" Stress and fatigue undermined Sano's tendency to hope for compassion from the shogun. He'd expected the shogun to care less about the deaths than their consequences for him. "Who is running my government?"

"The rest of us who are still alive," Sano said, thinking, with no help from you. He quashed that thought as unbecoming to himself as well as disrespectful to his lord. "There's no need to worry, Your Excellency."

"But the government has been reduced to a skeleton," Ienobu said.

Panic filled the shogun's eyes. "Who is protecting me? How many troops did I lose?"

"Over a thousand," Sano said, "but your army is still huge."

"The army is spread very thin," Ienobu said, "trying to maintain order in the city."

Sano narrowed his eyes at Ienobu. Was Ienobu deliberately trying to frighten the shogun so that he would become even more dependent on his nephew?

"Is the castle fixed yet?" the shogun asked.

"Unfortunately, no," Sano said.

"The castle wasn't built in a day. It can't be rebuilt in a day." Ienobu's soothing manner didn't soften the truth of his words.

Maybe Ienobu was trying to tip the shogun into his grave. Sano was so tired he could barely think straight.

"I'm so afraid!" The shogun cowered. "What if I should be attacked?"

"Nobody is going to attack you," Sano said, although an insurrection was a possibility that the government feared. "Nobody knows exactly how vulnerable you are. The number of deaths within the regime is being kept secret."

Even as the shogun looked relieved, he lamented, "The court astronomer just told me that the cosmos is displeased about something. He read it in the constellations. He says they say the earthquake was sent as a message." His eyes were round and shiny with terror. "There will be more trouble, I just know it!" He toppled onto the dais, writhed in his quilt like a silkworm in its cocoon, and groaned. "I'm so miserable, I feel a sick spell coming on!"

Astrology was serious business. A dictator must look to the stars for explanations for natural disasters and other calamities. He must heed their warnings, which were interpreted by his astronomer, that his regime was out of harmony with the cosmos. Sano knew this and felt alarmed himself, but his patience snapped like a stretched rope frayed down to its last thread. After fifteen years of listening to the shogun whine, of catering to him, of enduring insults and death threats, the shogun's reaction was too much. After seeing the devastation wrought by the earthquake, after toiling to pick up the pieces, Sano felt ready to explode. He opened his mouth to tell the shogun to stop acting like a baby and take responsibility for leading his country through this crisis.

The shogun pointed a shaky finger at Sano and cried, "You always bring me bad news! I'm sick of bad news! Go and fetch me some that's good!"

"You'd better go." Ienobu was watching Sano with interest, as if he could read Sano's thoughts. "Why not take a tour of inspection around the city?"

"Yes!" The shogun latched onto the idea with frantic zeal. "Begin at once!"

Sano came to his senses. The heat of his anger faded into cold realization of what he'd almost done — cast aside honor, offended the shogun beyond reparation, and doomed himself, his family, and all his close associates to death. Shaken by his close call, Sano went.


DRESSED IN ARMOR tunics and padded coats, Sano and his troops rode on horseback out of Edo Castle's main gate. Logs supported the guardhouse above it. A temporary bridge made of planks spanned the moat, whose embankment was riddled with cracks as wide as a man's hand. Laborers used ropes, pulleys, and muscle to haul up stones from the crumbled walls and guard towers that had fallen into the water. Sano inhaled freedom along with the dust and smoke in the air. Even though he didn't have time for a tour of inspection, he was glad to leave the castle for the first time in days. Maybe it would do his spirits good.

Then again, maybe not.

The avenue outside the castle was crowded with people who held out their hands and pleaded for alms. They weren't only the usual beggars, monks, and nuns; they were artisans and other workers who'd lost their livelihoods when the earthquake had shut down businesses and destroyed the houses where many among the lower classes had been employed as servants. Sano's attendants tossed coins, but the ranks of the poor had swelled so much; Sano couldn't help everyone. He entered the district where the daimyo — feudal lords who governed the provinces — owned huge estates. Long sections of the walls decorated with black-and-white geometric tile patterns had fallen. Barracks and mansions were reduced to debris piles and cracked foundations. Some estates had burned down. Tents made of oiled paper and cloth, hung on bamboo poles or wooden beams, served as quarters for the daimyo. Not even their enormous wealth could restore their homes anytime soon. Their troops cleared away wreckage. Scraping noises and crashes deafened Sano. The amount of work it would take to restore the city, Sano's mind could barely fathom.

A lone samurai came riding toward Sano. It was Hirata, his chief retainer, who'd taken over Sano's former post as top investigator for the shogun. He wore a simple cloak, kimono, and trousers. His hair was shaved at the crown and pulled back in a topknot, the customary style for samurai, the same as Sano and his other men. Hirata's two swords, mark of the warrior class, jutted at his waist, but he never wore armor. Sano marveled at how much Hirata, in his late thirties, had changed from the boyish, awkward fellow he'd been when he'd first entered Sano's service. Hirata was all lean, sinewy muscle and unnatural grace. That and his confident, keen-eyed aspect were a result of his years spent studying the mystic martial arts. He was the top fighter in Edo.

"Where have you been?" Sano asked.

"Searching for people trapped inside collapsed houses." Hirata turned his mount and rode beside Sano.

Sano looked askance at Hirata. Hirata had frequently been absent, without permission, during the past year, since he'd met three fellow disciples of the man who'd taught him the mystic martial arts. Instead of investigating crimes himself, Hirata often had his detectives cover for him. He spent so little time with Sano that he was Sano's chief retainer in title only. Hirata always had good excuses, but Sano had the distinct, uneasy feeling that they weren't true.


Excerpted from The Incense Game by Laura Joh Rowland. Copyright © 2012 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 fifteen previous Sano Ichiro mysteries. The Fire Kimono was named one of the Wall Street Journal's"Five Best Historical Mystery Novels"; and The Snow Empress and The Cloud Pavilion, were among Publishers Weekly's Best Mysteries of the Year. She lives in New York City.
LAURA JOH ROWLAND is the author of the Sano Ichiro mysteries (Shinju, Bundori, and The Way of the Traitor), which have twice been named Best Mysteries of the Year by Publishers Weekly. She lived through a natural disaster when Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed her house in New Orleans, and now lives in New York City.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

The Incense Game: A Novel of Feudal Japan 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Rowlands' stories are always engrossing, and this one is no exception, especially if you enjoy reading about this time period.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Practices two of his favorite moves. Then he sits and sharpens his teeth and claws to needle-sharp points. He pads off to take a nap before the games begin.
cs More than 1 year ago
"The Incense Game" is one of the best and most realistic historical mystery novels I've ever read. Here’s my numerical review: 16-15-1. It’s a lottery number you’ll win by. Sixteenth Century mystery. Treacherous politics. History. Culture. An earthquake bringing the city down upon them. Number 15 in Rowland’s Sano Ichiro mystery franchise. One of the best and most realistic historical mystery novels I’ve ever read, educating me in a world I knew nothing about. If you’ve never read a historical mystery, this is the one you should read
SunnyYonemoto More than 1 year ago
Pre order book not recieved as yet. I have read all Laura Joh Rowland and I enjoyed them all
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although I have not read this book yet going by prvious books by this author I enjoyed the mystery and the settings.