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Date Posted: 17:34:13 07/30/04 Fri
Author: Syl
Subject: The Perfumed Sleeve

This one was sent in by Beccabee. Excellent! Thanks, Rebecca!

TITLE: The Perfumed Sleeve

AUTHOR: Laura Joh Rowland

GENRE: Fiction

Two years ago I pulled the provocatively named The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria off the shelf at the local bookstore. Equally entranced by the name, the lovely cover art, and how the beauty of the prose of the first paragraph caught me, I bought it, only to find that Lady Wisteria was the seventh book in a series by the American author of Chinese/Korean descent, Laura Joh Rowland, of whom I had never heard. Even without the background of the first six books I was quickly sucked into the world of 17th century Japan lavishly recreated by Rowland and after finishing Lady Wisteria I set about collecting the entire set.

I found that the lyricism of the first paragraph of the first chapter of Lady Wisteria, which drew me to the series, is typical of all the books. I felt I became an onlooker in this place, this city, this home, this garden, this palace, or this pleasure quarter of Edo of the late 1600's. The series pays a lavish and graphic attention to historical detail that transports you to the time and spares no sensitivities as the methods of the training of the Samurai, the descriptions of the brutality of the daily lives of the peasants and the under- classes, the technicalities of torture and execution practices, the sexual customs of the times and the extravagant lives of the upper classes all get equal consideration.

The series protagonist , Sano Ichiro is the son of a ronin, a Samurai without a protector, a martial arts instructor, an historian and tutor of small boys, who joins the Edo police force in 17th century Edo, or Tokyo as we know it today, to be able to become self supporting and leave his father's house.

By a quirky series of events, Sano ends up saving the Shogun from assassination in the first book of the series, Shinju. As a reward, Sano is named sosokan-sama by the Shogun; the title meaning the Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations and People. In this position he is a forerunner of the modern day criminalist, solving crimes that affect the security of the regime and answerable only to the Shogun. Because Sano is a faithful follower of Bushido, The Way of the Warrior, and is incorruptible, his appointment causes much consternation and upset amongst the Shoguns' other favorites, who are all part of a bureaucracy built on corruption and who stay in power by deceit. The Shogun's most trusted advisor and longtime lover, the Honorable
Chamberlain Yanagisawa, and his mad wife are the constant evils against whom Sano and his
family battle throughout the series.

The characters are a pleasure to revisit. The Shogun is an eternal child, sulky and stupid, who can't breath unless his pants are unbuttoned. His lack of backbone and chronic switching of allegiances between his favorites sets up the perfect home for the ceaseless conspiracies the Chamberlain weaves against Sano. The lean and elegant morally bankrupt Chamberlain Yanagisawa, along with his stone ugly insane wife are presented to the reader as people with bleak pasts and endangered futures who act as they do out of necessity.

The absolute nuttiness of the Shogun's decrepit but still randy mother, hungry for encounters with young flesh of either sex and constantly hungering for Sano's wife, is a delight. Sano's wife, Reiko, eager to be an equal partner to her husband both in the home and in his profession, is able to open up to the reader the closed and forbidding worlds of both her own world of the women of the court and by working undercover, the women of the under- classes, each world as desolate as any prison. Sano's one dear friend, the elderly Dr. Ito, illustrates the brutal justice of the times, imprisoned for life for the crime of reading a foreign book, a medical text brought into the country by a Dutch trader. Dr. Ito, now the keeper of the Edo Morgue housed in the prison, helps Sano in his work by carrying out illegal post- mortems that would result in execution for both men if discovered.

The ninth book of the series, The Perfumed Sleeve (2004), is a bit of an anomaly to the series. Joh Rowland doesn't take the time for the lyricism of the earlier books, but rather presents the stark facts of a nation building towards war. Time and events are moving swiftly and there is no time for dallying or reflection or one might be swept away by circumstances. Knowing that whoever controls the silly and useless Shogun controls the country, two rivals, Chamberlain Yanasigawa and the Shogun's cousin Lord Matsudaira, are trying to best one another for control of the throne by placing a puppet of their own making in line to be the Shogun's heir. The Shogun has both a wife and a harem of concubines, but his preference for Manly Love, as practised by some Samurai, has left the country without a successor to the throne.

Yanagisawa has no blood tie to the Shogun, but has been a favored lover of the ruler since his teens. Knowing how the aged monarch prefers young blood, the Chamberlain is now pimping his oldest illegitimate son, the beautiful Yoritomo, to the Shogun. Matsudaira had tried this same way to power himself in the past by procuring his beloved son Lord Mitsuyoshi for the Shogun's pleasures. Mitsuyoshi was to be proclaimed the Shogun's heir until he was unceremoniously bumped off in The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria. Now, Matsudaira is trying again by pushing his nephew, Lord Daiemon, into the Shogun's bedchamber.

When the most powerful member of the Council of Elders is murdered Yanagisawa and Matsudaira are eager to cast the blame on each other. Each impedes Sano's investigation, although it is not at all clear that either is responsible. Perhaps it is the man's cast-off wife, fifteen year old concubine or actor lover instead? Even so, armies of both the Chamberlain and Matsudaira gather and the pall of war hangs over Edo. When the Shogun's beloved Lord Daiemon, Matsudaira's nephew, is murdered also, the sides meet and clash and Sano has to solve the crime to prevent all out warfare.

The beautiful Reiko goes undercover as a ladies' maid to help and discovers some astonishing facts about the lives of the rich and immoral and has an astonishing clash with the malevolent Lady Yanagisawa as well.

At book’s end, both the Shogun and Sano must face major upheaval in their lives.

The first eight books of the series are Shinju (1994), Bundori (1996), The Way of the Traitor
(1997), The Concubine's Tattoo (1998), The Samurai's Wife (2000), Black Lotus (2001), The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria (2002) and The Dragon King's Palace (2003). All eight are available from

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[> Wow! These look good Beccabee, and an era and location that I haven't read much of. Thanks -- Marg B, 18:35:35 07/30/04 Fri

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[> What an awesome review, beccabee - I'm mightily impressed! I'm going to the library this afternoon and I'll be sure look for Laura Joh Rowland. Thanks! -- GinC, 09:20:59 07/31/04 Sat

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[> I saw The Pillow Book at the theatre years ago - THAT was a weird movie. :D Didn't know anything about the author, so this is very interesting Becca. Thanks for the review and I'll write them down! -- Judie, 09:56:41 07/31/04 Sat

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[> [> If you saw "The Pillow Book" with Ewan McGregor, not the same thing at all. I've had other people ask me the same question. In "The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria" a high priced courtesan in the Edo Pleasure Quarter is suspected of murdering the Shogun's favorite boy-toy. -- beccabee, 11:26:57 07/31/04 Sat

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[> [> [> Just checked back tonight - well, not the same book, eh? Well, ya learn something every day. :D -- Judie, 02:52:34 08/12/04 Thu

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[> Beccabee, thanks for the review, this one looks right up my street. I have read one or two japanese based books before and always enjoyed them, I shall definitly be looking for these in the library. -- Margy, 12:56:23 08/01/04 Sun

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[> Sounds really interesting.I'd like to get a hold of them.I always liked Pearl buck books about China and read a couple of the newer Geisha novels.Thanks for the list. -- BGWJ, 21:30:26 08/01/04 Sun

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[> Ooooh!!! My toes are curling already! I love book series, and thank you so much for listing them in order. I'm going to Amazon.com right now! -- Milady M, 07:41:48 08/02/04 Mon

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[> I went to library today armed w/your list.only to find they dont have this book yet and all the others are farmed out all over the county in different libraries.It'll be a pip getting them all together. -- BGWJ, 20:14:55 08/02/04 Mon

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[> [> Oh, I hope you can get hold of them! Once I started reading them I just sucked them up. They are such a study in contrasts. -- beccabee, 05:51:31 08/03/04 Tue

Last edited by author: Tue August 03, 2004 05:52:13   Edited 1 time.

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[> Great book revue, I will definitely be checking these out. I love books you can get sucked into. -- RobinB, 16:25:40 08/03/04 Tue

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[> Wow, what a gret review beccabee!!! I've written down the titles!! -- Antje, 22:55:10 08/11/04 Wed

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