Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“As the only female detective in Tokyo’s most elite police unit, Mariko Oshiro has to fight for every ounce of respect, especially from her new boss. But when he gives her the least promising case possible—the attempted theft of an old samurai sword—it proves more dangerous than anyone on the force could have imagined.
The owner of the sword, Professor Yasuo Yamada, says it was crafted by the legendary Master Inazuma, a sword smith whose blades are rumored to have magical qualities. The man trying to steal it already owns another Inazuma—one whose deadly power eventually comes to control all who wield it.
Mariko’s investigation has put her on a collision course with a curse centuries old and as bloodthirsty as ever. She is only the latest in a long line of warriors and soldiers to confront this power, and even the sword she learns to wield could turn against her.”
I have to say, this novel really surprised me. What the synopsis doesn’t clearly tell you is that this novel contains several flashbacks to the age of the samurai in order to tell the history of the Inazuma swords. Through each flashback, readers learn of the blades and their powers—or curses. Along with the fictional swords, there are also many fascinating historical details about centuries-old Japanese history. Bein is an expert in Asian philosophy and history, so he’s able to realistically infuse his narrative with tidbits of Bushido and the lifestyles of the samurai.
That’s not the only culture that Bein explores. Through the parts of the novel that are told in the “present” (here meaning Tokyo in 2010), readers see an interesting cross-section of current Japanese culture—and not always its best aspects. Yakuza (think Japanese Mafia) operate in the open, and the author even asserts in an afterword that when the police raid their operations, they call and make an appointment first. While that doesn’t happen in the novel, there are plenty of hints that what we think of as “crime” isn’t the same in Japan.
There’s also a lot in the story about honor: what’s the best way through a difficult situation or decision, given that oftentimes neither choice is a good one. Much of this is framed in the context of Japanese culture, of course, but the questions raised can apply to anybody. How can you uphold honor in a situation where you may be asked to sacrifice that very honor for the greater good? The final flashback in particular tackles this thorny issue.
The story is populated with well-drawn characters. Mariko in particular more than holds her own as the main character, and it’s fitting as she’s holding her own in a job traditionally held by men. Bein doesn’t sugar-coat the kind of harassment she receives from her superiors, nor does he gloss over the difficulties faced by women in general on a daily basis. Mariko is strong, both mentally and physically, but not superhuman. Her struggles come through loud and clear, but the author always keeps it realistic. It’s hard to show a strong character with flaws and make them work, but Bein more than pulls it off.
All of the flashbacks and main storyline work so well together that I found it hard to put this book down. I’m not much of a fan of Japanese culture (for example, I don’t understand the lure of anime), but Bein draws such a full portrait of life in that country that I couldn’t help but be interested. Daughter of the Sword is a novel, a look at Japanese culture past and present, and an exploration of philosophy all rolled into one. And if that sounds like too much to take in, believe me, it’s worth every page.