If I actually pause and look over the past few books that I’ve been gung-ho about and have been devouring heartily, a common theme emerges: JAPAN.
Yamada Monogatari was an indie piece based on Medieval Japan and Oni and rice-paper ghosts. Was more of a slow-burn – with a Japanese ronin Sherlock Holmes for a hero and the story being a kind of a delicious mystery drawing you in to a power struggle for the throne. And then I got started on this - Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein - A noteworthy debut that came in 2012 –And is such an exquisitely written urban fantasy overlaid with detailed Japanese history that it begs to be finished in one sitting.
And currently am reading a steampunk fantasy heavily inspired by Japanese mythology – a story called Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff – the end parts of this trilogy (EndSinger) should be hitting the stores right around the corner. Exciting stuff. Mindblowing worldbuilding skills ever.
So coming back to Daughter of the Sword – this is one heck of a solid debut and Steve Bein is definitely a powerhouse talent that I’m keeping my eyes open for. This book is primarily an urban thriller set in modern day Tokyo – but crisscrossed with some detailed Japanese historical fiction. I am not sure of the “fantasy” tag to this debut – but it’s a wildly exciting tale that sees police procedural mixed up with oriental sword-play. And I’m not the one complaining.
So the blurb actually doesn’t do justice to the layered story-telling. It primarily is the story of Mariko Oshiro – the only lady detective on the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. Now Steve could have played just this one card and made the story wildly exciting and interesting. But he chooses to infuse the story with historical layers – going back to the times even before the first Shogunate of Japan – then cutting back to 16th century and finally bridging the gaps in 1945, the end of second world war. The manner in which these stories are linked together is fascinating.
So Mariko – struggling against the stereotypes and chauvinism – is vying to get into the more exciting narcotics investigation department. But the fact that she is female and has a sister – struggling with her addiction to drugs – makes things doubly difficult. These struggles mired in a long rich historical context of Japan actually makes Mariko’s story more appealing – and elicits the reader’s empathy effortlessly. We’ve seen this. Glass ceiling. Gender bias. But Mariko rises up through all this.
Being assigned to a seemingly innocuous case of attempted burglary for an antique sword seemed like the end of the road for ambitious Mariko. But soon the layers peel off. Professor Yasuo Yamada – who owns the artifact – the antique sword – seems like the perfect Master Shifu urging Mariko to find her inner peace. As well as teaching her the art of sword-fighting simultaneously filling her in on the fascinating history of this sword – entwined with two others. The famed swords are the only ones to be made by a genius swordsmith named Inazuma to have survived and shaped history.
Mariko gets drawn into the case – even as a new yakuzai in town seems hell bent on changing the rules of drug-trafficking in the city. The story gets twisty and delightful with the author going back in time to establish the “fated” powers of the famed swords – each era detailing how the swords rewrite the fates of the sword-wielders and those around them. The mention of magic is subtle and not over-stated but remains an intriguing presence throughout the story.
Mariko is a fascinating female lead to get behind of. Easy to like, righteous to a fault and bogged down by her own personal demons, she is definitely the central tour-de-force in terms of characters. The wise sage/grasshopper sensei – Master Shifu aka Professor Yamada is someone we’ve probably seen in different avatars but is a critical bridge to different parts of the story. The rest of the characters as well – each era demanding a new “hero” and plotline – are also very well-drawn out and confirm well to the overall plot of the “fated” blades.
What makes this debut eminently readable is actually the detailed research of Japanese culture that shines through Steve’s nuanced writing. I loved the way he delves into the cultural minutiae of Japan across different eras – making it real and retaining all of the complexities without losing the reader.
Overall, this is a fantastic debut and a series in which I definitely will pick up the rest of the books. Mariko definitely deserves more stories set in this world and am hoping Steve’s research brings in more aspects of the Japanese culture to rest of the world. More power to you!