Resurrected book review: The Snow Empress, by Laura Joh Rowland

From spring 2013.


This is a highly interesting study of a book.  I think the actual mystery/detective work is a bit simplistic (not that I have any idea yet who the culprit is), but just as a study of — okay, the author appears to be Japanese, but certainly a modern-era woman writing about Japanese 17th-century society.

I really love the equality in the main character’s (Sano Ichiro) marriage, and how strong and independent his wife is (though in this book, she’s half-drowned in grief for her missing son, like the ideal mother).  Her initial description talked about how unusual she is compared to most high-class Japanese women; for instance, she trains in martial arts and she goes about town helping those in need (like Batman!), and the latter especially was highly unusual.  It’s interesting to think about how realistic all of this —especially her close, loving relationship with her husband — actually is for the time period, but I certainly prefer to read this than a sexist and abusive portrayal of a marriage.

One of the most touching moments, to me, was the scene in which Sano and his men pissed off the madman lord of Hokkaido (or Ezogashima, translated as “land of the barbarians,” i.e. the aboriginals of Japan), who commanded them taken outside and executed, and Sano was so overcome with grief due to his belief that his son was already dead, he wasn’t even going to protest; but then he remembered his wife, and for her sake, he made an effort to reason with the madman to spare their lives, at least for the time being.

Other ways this book has unexpectedly modern attitudes: another main character, Hirata, who is the typical martial arts student seeking enlightenment and who can already perform impressive feats like leaping unexpected distances (like from a dock to the rail of a departing ship) and exuding an atmosphere of calm over men about to fight — anyway, he’s drawn to the chief of a local aboriginal village, believes the chief will help him on his path to enlightenment. He talks with the chief and finds out they call themselves Ainu rather than Ezo (barbarians), and Hirata determines to henceforth always use that term as well.

Later he’s sent to interview a Japanese gold merchant in the Hokkaido capitol, and he’s utterly disgusted by the merchant’s hobby of collecting and displaying various sacred Ainu objects (as well as animal trophies) around his office.  Because CULTURE APPROPRIATION, UGH. (If there’s any confusion, I think Hirata’s attitude is extremely admirable and I’m pleased the author is so conscious of this problem.)

And then there’s the actual case.

(warnings for some discussion of rape and slut-shaming)

It turns out that the lord has gone crazy because his murdered mistress’s spirit is possessing him, and the reason she’s possessing him is probably because her unburied body is lying on a slab in a room.

But the mad lord — and the spirit of the mistress, Tekare, who speaks through him — won’t let her be buried or cremated until they find out how she died, so Sano is leading an investigation to learn more about her in order to find out who might have been motivated to kill her.  And what it’s increasingly boiling down to is determining how much of a whore she was.

Many different parties give very different versions of what she was like, but the latest information is that she was marked as a shamaness (i.e., female shaman) when she was very young, then gang-raped by Japanese men when she was 14, and since then she’s been using Japanese men as lovers to climb higher socially, until she was the concubine of the lord of Hokkaido.

And there’s really not as much slut-shaming on the part of the main characters, the heroes of the book, as you might expect.  They’re just looking for the facts without passing much judgment, though I think Hirata recently referred to her as a “bad woman” when talking to the chief (and that might have been one of the politer alternatives).

Then, just on the way home today, I was surprised in another way: UNEXPECTED BDSM.  Sano gets a chance to look through the mad lord’s bedchamber and he finds his personal diary, which has, among other things, a lot of pornographic drawings of himself and Tekare fucking, done in such a way that their genitals are clearly visible.  And then there are lots of entries tracking their relationship, which pretty clearly suggest she kept him drugged with special wine and herbs he smoked.

He wrote about how she pretended to be so innocent and delicate at first, but before long she was tying him up and whipping him with cords, and also piercing his nipples with fishing hooks, omg.  And then he lamented how she was all he ever thought about, and even when he was supposed to be taking notes about what was going on in his land, he found himself drawing sexual scenes of himself and Tekare.  Which must have been AWKWARD for all his retainers and advisors catching a glimpse of his “notes.”


I’m nearing the end now, and I’m ready to pronounce judgment on a couple things I was holding back on:

  • They are not very good detectives
  • There are awful women issues (i.e., the two women with any ambition have ended up dead, and while Reiko — the main character’s wife — is awesome in many ways and will not stay where men put her, she is also very much the Ideal Mother driven half-mad with the belief her son was dead, and there have been a lot of catfights)

Also, oh my God, they just walked in on a character masturbating to (picture) pornography, what is this book with its unexpected hardcoreness.

And did I mention the heads on pikes a few chapters ago?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s