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The Snow Empress (Sano Ichiro Series #12)

The Snow Empress (Sano Ichiro Series #12)

4.0 9
by Laura Joh Rowland

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Japan, 1699: On a moonlit night on the northern frontier island of Ezogashima, a woman is running through the forest when an arrow strikes her dead. Meanwhile, in the city of Edo, the young son of Sano Ichiro, the samurai detective who has risen to power in the shogun's court, vanishes during a moon-watching festival. When one of Sano's political rivals hints that the


Japan, 1699: On a moonlit night on the northern frontier island of Ezogashima, a woman is running through the forest when an arrow strikes her dead. Meanwhile, in the city of Edo, the young son of Sano Ichiro, the samurai detective who has risen to power in the shogun's court, vanishes during a moon-watching festival. When one of Sano's political rivals hints that the boy was kidnapped—and may be in Ezogashima—he and his wife, Reiko, begin a desperate journey to find their son…only to discover that the local ruler, Lord Matsumae, is holding the entire province hostage for another crime: The murder of his mistress. So Sano strikes a deal: He will solve the mistress's murder if Matsumae will free the hostages and return his son. Soon, however, Sano and Reiko find themselves caught up in a dangerous scheme that includes clan warfare, bitter jealousy, and murderous betrayal as they race to unravel the mystery of THE SNOW EMPRESS, from acclaimed author Laura Joh Rowland.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Demonstrating an impressive level of sustained excellence, Rowland's mysteries set in 17th-century Japan form one of the best recent series in the genre. The 12th episode (after 2006's Red Chrysanthemum) delves deeper into the politics of an empire ruled by a figurehead as the background for a compelling and thrilling whodunit. Rowland continues to conjure up new hurdles for her sleuth, Sano Ichiro, recently elevated to the position of chamberlain. His power and integrity inevitably offend more venal politicians, one of whom arranges the abduction of Sano's young son, Masahiro. Sano's quest for the kidnappers coincides with a mission to the remote northern city of Ezogashima, where an insane local ruler is holding the entire community hostage as he searches for the murderer of his mistress, an exotic foreigner known as the Snow Empress. Compelling pacing and well-rounded characters enhance the intriguing plot and will draw in new readers as well as longtime fans. (Nov.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
A Japanese sleuth must venture to a remote territory to find his missing son. Edo, 1699. Masahiro, the eight-year-old son of chamberlain Sano Ichiro and his wife Reiko (Red Chrysanthemum, 2006, etc.), disappears one otherwise uneventful afternoon. Shortly thereafter, Sano is summoned to the palace of the shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, where Sano's chief rival, unpleasant Lord Matsudaira, who has barely escaped the bombing of his villa, accuses Sano of the crime. Sano instantly realizes that his Matsudaira is responsible for kidnapping Masahiro. The shogun instructs Sano to depart for the faraway island province of Ezogashima, where the ruling lord, Matsumae, appears to be in danger from barbarians. When Matsudaira admits that Masahiro has been taken to Ezogashima, Sano swiftly organizes the daunting expedition, which includes Reiko and his deputy Hirata. A hairy outcast appropriately known as the Rat accompanies them as translator. In Ezo, the visitors find fear and suspicion around every corner. Their first meeting with the distrustful Lord Matsumae, distraught over the recent murder of his mistress Tekare, nearly ends in their execution. Similarly, Lady Matsumae is in mourning over the poisoning of her beloved daughter, Nobuko. Reiko, as is her wont, strikes out on her own, assisted by an ambitious maid named Lilac. Rowland's 12th Ichiro mystery threatens to become overheated and overplotted, but abundant historical color and an elegant, controlled style keep it nicely grounded.
From the Publisher
“Demonstrating an impressive level of sustained excellence, Rowland’s mysteries set in 17th-century Japan form one of the best recent series in the genre…. Compelling pacing and well-rounded characters enhance the intriguing plot and will draw in new readers as well as longtime fans.”

—-Publishers Weekly (starred) on The Snow Empress, chosen as one of the “Best Books of 2007”

"[Rowland's] Japan is a mix of Kabuki theater-like stylized formality, palace intrigue, and physical action that would do a martial arts movie proud." —-The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)

"Abundant historical color and an elegant, controlled style..." —-Kirkus Reviews

“The murder mystery is intricately structured, with many suspects having a variety of motives. Engaging but not especially taxing, The Snow Empress would make a nice book to take along on your next long plane trip.” —-The Daily Yomuiri Online

“Each [book] seems to be better than the last one.” —-Reviewingtheevidence.com

“Consistently fascinating and seductive, The Snow Empress is another top-notch mystery....Rich in historical and cultural details, the intricately designed plot and compelling characterizations will entertain readers who enjoy unusual murder mysteries with exotic settings and provocative premises.”


"Rowland has a painter's eye for the minutiae of court life, as well as a politican's ear for intrigue."

—-The New York Times Book Review

"Sano may carry a sword and wear a kimono, but you'll immediately recognize him as an ancestor of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade." —-The Denver Post

"Blending political intrigue and barbed social commentary, Red Chrysanthemum is a crisply lurid Rashomon mystery." —-Entertainment Weekly

"A careful, beautiful portrayal of a dangerous time in Japanese history...a compelling and lively series."

—-The Dallas Morning News

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
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Sano Ichiro Series , #12
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The Snow Empress

By Laura Joh Rowland

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2007 Laura Joh Rowland
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-9120-9


A gray, clouded twilight befell Edo. Thin drizzle glazed the capital's tile roofs and subdued the crowds trudging through the wet streets. The cold vapors of late autumn floated on the Sumida River. Mist rendered Edo Castle almost invisible upon its hilltop and drenched the lights in its guard turrets.

Seated inside his office in his compound within the castle, Sano saw Detective Marume, one of his two personal bodyguards, standing at the threshold. He paused in the middle of a letter he was dictating to his secretary. "Well? Did you find him?" he demanded.

The sad expression on the burly detective's normally cheerful face was answer enough. The hope that had risen in Sano drowned in disappointment.

Masahiro had been missing for almost two months, since the moon-viewing party. Sano still had troops out searching, to no avail. The possibility of kidnapping had occurred to him, even though no ransom demand had come. He had suspicions about who might be responsible, but he'd investigated all his enemies and come up with no clues that tied Masahiro's disappearance to them; in fact, no clues at all. Every day Masahiro was gone Sano grew more desperate to find his beloved son, and more afraid he never would.

"I'm sorry," Marume said. "The sighting was another false lead."

False leads had taunted Sano from the beginning. At first he and Reiko had thrilled to each new report that a boy who fit Masahiro's description had been spotted in this or that place. But as the hunt had gone on and on, as their hopes were cruelly dashed time after time, Sano had come to dread new leads. He couldn't bear to tell Reiko that this last one had come to naught, to see her suffer.

The only hardship more terrible for them than another day without Masahiro was not knowing what had happened to him.

"Don't worry, we'll find your boy," Marume said, as if anxious to convince himself.

Fighting the idea that despite all his power, his troops, and his wealth he couldn't bring Masahiro back, striving to remain optimistic, Sano said, "Any new information?"

Marume hesitated, then said, "Not today."

The only thing worse than false leads was no leads at all. Sano felt his endurance crumbling under a wave of grief, but he couldn't fall apart. Not only his wife but the Tokugawa regime depended on him. "Keep the search going. Don't give up."

"Will do," Marume said.

A manservant came to the door. "Excuse me, Honorable Chamberlain. There's a message from the shogun. He wants to see you in the palace right away."

Sano was reminded that the disappearance of his son was only one of his troubles.

Sano found the shogun in his bath chamber. Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, the military dictator of Japan, sat naked in the sunken tub of steaming water. A blind masseur rubbed his withered shoulders. The shogun's favorite companion, a beautiful youth named Yoritomo, lounged close to him in the tub. Guards and servants hovered nearby. Lord Matsudaira, the shogun's cousin, crouched next to the door. He was sweating in his armor, his stoic expression not hiding his resentment that he must dance attendance on his cousin or lose influence over him and control over the regime.

"Greetings, Chamberlain Sano," he said.

Five years ago, Lord Matsudaira had set out to take over the regime because he thought he would be a better dictator than the weak, foolish shogun was. His first step was to eliminate the former chamberlain, Yanagisawa, who'd been the shogun's lover and ruled Japan from behind the throne. Lord Matsudaira had defeated Yanagisawa on the battlefield and exiled him. But Lord Matsudaira had had a harder time maintaining power than achieving it. Now antagonism toward Sano iced his polite manner. Sano felt his guard go up against this man who'd become his personal enemy.

"Are you surprised to see me?" Lord Matsudaira asked.

"Not at all." Sano was displeased to find Lord Matsudaira here but had expected as much. Lord Matsudaira was always around when Sano saw the shogun, the better to prevent them from getting too close.

"Perhaps, then," Lord Matsudaira said, "you're disappointed that I'm still alive after last night's incident."

Sano guessed what was coming. Not again, he thought in dismay. "What incident?"

"A firebomb was thrown into my villa on the river while I was hosting a banquet there," said Lord Matsudaira.

"Dear me, how terrible," murmured the shogun. "It seems as if this sort of thing is, ahh, always happening to you."

Although Lord Matsudaira had purged the regime of Yanagisawa's allies, subjugating some and banishing or executing others, Yanagisawa still had underground partisans fighting Lord Matsudaira with covert acts of violence. And Lord Matsudaira was so insecure in his power that his relations with his own supporters had deteriorated. He harshly punished them for the slightest hint of disloyalty while forcing them to pay large cash tributes to prove their allegiance. He'd created such a climate of fear and disgruntlement that there were many people in his camp who wouldn't have minded seeing him dead.

"I'd have thought that you of all people would have known about the bombing." Lord Matsudaira glanced at the shogun, who looked puzzled trying to catch the drift of the conversation, then fixed an accusing stare on Sano. "Perhaps in advance."

"You're mistaken," Sano said, exasperated because this was the third time in as many months that Lord Matsudaira had accused him of something he hadn't done. He wasn't responsible for the bombing even though the man had reason to think so.

Last year the folks who'd put Lord Matsudaira on top had started casting about for somebody to take him down. Sano had found himself pushed to the head of the line.

At first he'd rejected the idea of challenging Lord Matsudaira because his duty and loyalty to the shogun extended to the entire Tokugawa clan. But Lord Matsudaira treated him so badly, always criticizing him, accusing him of treason and corruption, threatening him and his family with death. Sano had faced a choice between leading a movement against Lord Matsudaira and bowing down and giving up his post, his self-respect, and his samurai honor.

That was no choice at all.

Lord Matsudaira now regarded Sano with hostility, believing him guilty of the attack no matter what he said. "You might be interested to know that my guards caught the man that threw the bomb. Before they killed him, he told me who sent him."

"I'm sure that by the time you were finished with him, he would have said anything you wanted," Sano said, denying that the bomber was one of his men. Now he had his own bone to pick with Lord Matsudaira. "If you're so determined to lay blame, then consider the attack a retaliation."

"For what?" Lord Matsudaira said, disconcerted.

"Some troops were ambushed and fired at by snipers eight days ago." Aware of the shogun listening, Sano kept his speech circumspect; he didn't say that the troops were from his own army or that he thought Lord Matsudaira responsible.

"This is the first I've heard of it."

Although Lord Matsudaira sounded genuinely surprised, Sano didn't believe him any more than he'd believed Sano. "You may be interested to know that the snipers were seen by witnesses before they ran away. They were wearing a certain family crest." Yours, his look told Lord Matsudaira.

Outraged incredulity showed on the man's face. "The witnesses are lying. Why would one send men on a sneak attack labeled with one's own crest?"

"Because one didn't expect anybody would live to tell," Sano said.

As he and Lord Matsudaira stared each other down, Sano felt a sense of momentum careening out of control, as if they were two horsemen tumbling down a hill while they fought together. He'd expected Lord Matsudaira to meet his opposition with due force; Sano had armed himself with a long-term strategy of building support and had hoped for a painless takeover, but the attacks were propelling them toward outright battle. His samurai spirit filled with bloodlust. He could taste both victory and death.

"I don't know what you're arguing about," the shogun interrupted, peevish because Sano and Lord Matsudaira had excluded him from their conversation. "Settle your differences elsewhere. Chamberlain Sano, I brought you here to discuss a very important matter."

"What would that be, Your Excellency?" Sano said.

"It's a report that you sent me." The shogun fumbled at some scrolls beside the tub. "Now which one is it?"

Yoritomo reached over, picked out a scroll, and handed it to his lord and lover. He shot a nervous glance at Sano, who pitied him. Yoritomo was a son of Yanagisawa, the former chamberlain. Although Lord Matsudaira had exiled Yanagisawa and his family, the shogun had insisted on keeping Yoritomo. Yoritomo had Tokugawa blood — from his mother, a relative of the shogun — and rumor said he was heir apparent to the dictatorship. Sano had befriended Yoritomo, who seemed alone and lost at court, a decent young man who deserved better than to be a political pawn and a target for Lord Matsudaira's schemes.

The shogun opened the scroll and jabbed a wet finger at the characters. "I am concerned about this, ahh, situation you mentioned." Lately, he'd begun taking an interest in government affairs instead of leaving them to his subordinates. Perhaps he sensed how much control he'd lost and wanted to snatch it back, at this late date. "The one that involves Ezogashima."

Ezogashima was the far northernmost island of Japan, sometimes referred to as Hokkaido, "Northern Sea Circuit." A vast, sparsely populated wilderness of forests, mountains, and rivers, it consisted of two domains. The largest was Ezochi, "barbarian place," inhabited by the Ezo, primitive tribal people scattered among tiny villages. The other was Wajinchi, "Japanese place," squeezed into the southwest corner, a remote outpost of the Tokugawa regime and its foothold in alien territory.

"You say there is a problem with the Matsumae clan," the shogun said.

The clan were his vassals who governed Ezogashima, their longtime hereditary fief. In the rigidly organized world of Japan, their status was ambiguous. They weren't traditional landholders like the daimyo, feudal lords who ruled the provinces. There was little agriculture in Ezogashima, no income from farming. Rather, the Matsumae derived their wealth and political power from their monopoly on trade with the Ezo. They took a share of the money made on furs, gold, wild game, fish, and other products exported to the south. They were looked down upon by samurai society because they blurred the line between warrior and merchant.

Squinting at the inked characters, which had begun to run, the shogun said, "Remind me what the problem is, Yoritomo-san."

"Lord Matsumae didn't show up for his attendance this year," the youth said in a quiet, deferential tone.

"He was due in the summer," Sano clarified.

The Matsumae came to Edo to visit the shogun about once every three years, less often than other lords, who came annually. This was not only because of the long distance from Ezogashima but also for political factors. Lord Matsumae was supposed to be busy defending Japan's northern frontier, and he was so removed from the power plays of Edo that he was considered not much of a threat to the Tokugawa, which therefore kept him on a loose rein. He didn't even have to leave his wife and children in Edo as hostages to ensure his good behavior. However, he did owe respect to the shogun. His failure to appear was a serious violation of protocol.

"Even more disturbing is the fact that there's been no communication at all from Ezogashima in two months," Lord Matsudaira said, obviously familiar with the situation. There was a sly smile on his face that Sano didn't like.

"What have you done about this, ahh, matter?" the shogun asked Sano.

Sano had to pause and think. Masahiro's disappearance had made it hard for him to concentrate on anything else. "I sent envoys to find out what's going on. They never returned."

"Worse and worse," Lord Matsudaira muttered, but he sounded pleased for some strange, private reason.

"What could be the cause of this?" the shogun asked.

"Perhaps an Ezo uprising has prevented Lord Matsumae from leaving his domain or sending communiqués," Sano said.

From time to time the barbarians warred against the Japanese, invariably over trade disputes and Japanese intrusion into Ezo hunting and fishing territory. The last war had occurred some thirty years ago, when Ezo chieftains had banded together, attacked the Matsumae clan, and attempted to drive them out of Ezogashima. More than two hundred Japanese had been killed before the Matsumae finally subdued the barbarians. But another war with the Ezo wasn't the most dire possibility.

"Maybe the Manchurians have attacked," Lord Matsudaira said.

The regime had long feared an invasion, via Ezogashima, by the Manchurians from the Chinese mainland. The Matsumae clan was Japan's buffer against them. Sano imagined war raging in Ezogashima, the Matsumae defeated, then enemy legions conquering Japan province by province before anyone in Edo knew. As everyone contemplated such a fate, fear opened the shogun's mouth. He reached for Yoritomo, who held his hand.

"Something must be done," the shogun said to Sano.

Sano knew what was coming. Even if instinct hadn't alerted him, Lord Matsudaira's sly smile would have. He hurried to head it off. "I'll send a battalion of troops to Ezogashima today."

"That's not good enough." The shogun pointed a dripping, withered finger at Sano. "I want you to go yourself."

A sense of injustice flared up in Sano. That the shogun still treated him like an errand boy, ordering him here and there on a whim, even now that he was second-in-command! Yet he knew he had no right to be angry even though a trip to Ezogashima was the last thing he needed. He was just as much at his lord's disposal as the lowliest foot soldier was; he owed the shogun unstinting duty without expectation of reward. That was Bushido, the Way of the Warrior, the code of honor by which he lived. And he knew that sending him to Ezogashima wasn't the shogun's idea. Sano glared at Lord Matsudaira.

Lord Matsudaira met his gaze with bland indifference before saying, "That's a wonderful idea, Your Excellency. I'm sure Chamberlain Sano will straighten everything out for us."

While Sano was gone, Lord Matsudaira would steal his allies and build up his own power base. Then there would be no place left at court for Sano. If he went to Ezogashima, he might as well never come back.

"I'm eager to be of service, but if I go, who will help you run the government, Your Excellency?" Sano said, appealing to the shogun's self-interest.

That ploy usually worked, but this time the shogun said, "My dear cousin has assured me that he will, ahh, fill your shoes in your absence." He smiled gratefully at Lord Matsudaira, who smirked.

But Sano had another, more urgent reason besides politics for wanting to get out of the trip. Desperation drove him to beg for special consideration even though he never had before. "Your Excellency, this is a bad time for me to leave Edo. My son is missing."

"Ahh, yes, I recall," the shogun said, diverted. "Poor little boy. How terrible for you and Lady Reiko."

Sano hastened to press his advantage: "I have to be here to lead the search for him."

The shogun wavered but then turned to Lord Matsudaira. "What do you think?" "I think that perhaps his wish to find his son gives Chamberlain Sano all the more motive to go to Ezogashima," Lord Matsudaira said in a portentous tone. "Before you argue anymore, Chamberlain Sano, I have something to show you."

He stood, reached under his sash, pulled out an object, and handed it to Sano. It was the hilt of a miniature sword, the wooden blade broken off. As Sano gazed at the flying-crane crest stamped on the brass guard, recognition and puzzlement stunned him. The hilt came from one toy sword of a pair he'd given Masahiro. The sword was the mate of the longer one that Reiko had found at the temple. Masahiro had worn both weapons that night.

"Where did you get this?" Sano demanded.

Shrugging, Lord Matsudaira smiled, his expression innocent. "I think you can guess."


Excerpted from The Snow Empress by Laura Joh Rowland. Copyright © 2007 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, the granddaughter of Chinese and Korean immigrants, grew up in Michigan and was educated at the University of Michigan. She and her husband, Marty, settled in New Orleans and have recently returned there after Hurricane Katrina. The Snow Empress is the twelfth in her highly acclaimed series of thrillers featuring Sano Ichiro.
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.

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The Snow Empress (Sano Ichiro Series #12) 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
PainFrame More than 1 year ago
Greetings, Honorable Chamberlain. I gave up on the continuity of this series a long time ago. I refuse to do the research to figure out what order the books go in (Hey publisher! Can't you NUMBER the books? How about a timeline?) - so I just read whichever one I feel like whenever the mood strikes me. This probably seems like a dumb strategy (it is), but it doesn't hurt my enjoyment of this series in the slightest. Feudal Japan is easily my favorite historical setting (if you dig it too, don't be afraid to check out my favorite book ever: Shogun), it's just so alien compared to present day America. Also, I'm a sucker for anything which even remotely touches on Samurai or Ninja. So naturally I'm going to be all over a murder mystery with clever detective work set in this period. I also enjoy the factual tidbits the author sprinkles throughout the stories, such as the illegality of autopsies - Aha! That threw a wrench into your investigation didn't it? I recommend this series, but you should probably start with the first book, if you can figure out WHICH ONE THAT IS (seriously, I'm pretty sure it's Shinju)!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
The Mystery Book Club at my library just finished reading and reviewing this book. It was the most challenging book we have attempted to discuss so far. We were so impressed with her writing and how authentic her research is. Sano and his wife make a great detective team. The story kept us guessing until the end and the characters held our attention all the way through.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1699 in Edo, Masahiro, the son of chamberlain Sano Ichiro and his wife Reiko, vanishes without a trace. At about the same time that his parents are aware of his abduction, Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi summons Sano to the palace. There Sano¿s enemy Lord Matsudaira accuses him of bombing his villa. Sano believes the bombing is a distraction ploy as his odious foe probably kidnapped his child.--------------- Tokugawa sends Sano to the faraway island of Ezogashima, where he is to help Lord Matsumae battle barbarians. Meanwhile Matsudaira confesses that Sano¿s son has been taken to Ezogashima also. Sano and Reiko accompanied by a small retinue rush to Ezogashima, but meet no cooperation from anyone and almost lose their heads as grieving Lord Matsumae trusts no one since his mistress was murdered meanwhile his wife mourns the homicide of their daughter. Reiko investigates the murders allegedly committed by the SNOW EMPRESS and the whereabouts of her son while Sano struggles to get through to the apparently insane Matsumae.------------ Ichiro¿s twelfth historical mystery is an exciting thriller that once again brings to life late seventeenth century Japan. The story line is fast-paced as Sano tries to stay clam in light of his son¿s kidnapping and the insanity of the Lord he is supposed to help he would like to harm Matsudaira for the abduction and remove Matsumae from office. However, his volatile wife does not care one iota about political correctness especially when Masahiro is involved. Although placing the lad on the same island that the Shogun sends the hero to makes it easier on the lead couple to work together, fans of the series will enjoy their latest escapades as the Chamberlain and his wife try to rescue their offspring and struggle with obeying their order to help the insane Lord.------------ Harriet Klausner
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As blurb a mess