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The Shogun’s Daughter by Laura Joh Rowland

The Shogun’s Daughter” is set in 1704 in feudal Japan during the reign of a weak shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty.  This novel is part of Rowland’s “Sano Ichiro Mysteries” series. Rival samurai loyal to the Tokugawa family vie for political advantage and in the process the Shogun’s daughter is murdered by being purposely infected through exposure to a Smallpox infested sheet.  Later it appears that the shogun’s heir, a young man who had recently been declared the shogun’s son through the admission of one of the court ladies as to her affair with the shogun, is presumably murdered when a fire is set to young Yoshisato’s residence.  The heir’s “adoptive” father, Yanagisawa, tries to pin both murders on his chief political rival, Sano, the shogun’s chief crime inspector.  Sano must solve both crimes in order to free himself and his entire family from the fate of being burned alive at the stake for high treason and murder.

Laura Joh Rowland has created a tense, suspenseful mystery thriller that just doesn’t let up from first to last page.  The descriptions of each character, their motivations and their environment are finely articulated so that the reader is drawn into the story as if he or she is actually following Sano’s family around as they experience the gut-wrenching events.  The plot is cleverly set up so that the story can continue on  with the next book in the series, which I am looking forward to reading as soon as it is published.

The Shogun’s Daughter” is highly recommended. One of my best reads of the year.

Liz Nichols

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Bedlam: The Further Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte by Laura Joh Rowland

Rowland’s “Bedlam” is a very Victorian Gothic adventure based very loosely on the life of Charlotte Bronte. In this fictional tale Charlotte is admitted as a visitor to London’s insane asylum, Bedlam and accidentally witnesses a torture of her spy friend, Slade. It turns out a Prussian/Russian spy has bribed the doctor in charge of the criminally insane unit to use the facility to torture information out of his enemies.

Think of the plots in this book and the characters as if they were from a James Bond novel set in the mid-19th century. The reader must suspend a sense of the possible to believe Slade could escape from a Bedlam torture chamber, or that Queen Victoria would be involved a confrontation with a mad bomber at the Crystal Palace during the Great Exposition in London. The book is pure spy thriller, not history.

The author does explain at the end of the book some of the characters and incidents that are real. Obviously, Charlotte Bronte was a literary celebrity in the mid-19th century and she was friendly with her publisher, George Smith ans with author, William Makepeace Thackeray, both of whom are portrayed in “Bedlam”. She would probably turn over in her grave at the implications of this novel, especially the implication that she secretly married a British spy.

Several other characters in the book were historical, including, of course, Queen Victoria. I doubt if she would have entertained the behavior of Bronte and Slade in the book, and her character does show some disapproval.

There was also a mid-19th century serial killer in White Chapel who forms the basis of the mad bomber/murderer figure. Wilhelm Stieber, the Prussian spy who worked for the Russian Czar, was also a real person.

I find this an interesting mixture of fact and fiction, although as I said, the reader must understand that the book is far more spy thriller fiction than fact.

Liz Nichols

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