BLADE opens in sixteenth-century Kyoto a year after undercover ninja Matsui Hiro and Jesuit priest Father Mateo successfully solved a first murder case. The action moves from the local entertainment district to the shogunate, where Ashikaga Saburo, the shogun's cousin, has been found stabbed to death in his office a few days before the expected visit of an enemy warlord. The shogun, loath to exhibit any weakness before his visiting adversary and impressed by Hiro and Fr. Mateo's demonstrated investigative skills, demands the pair apprehend the murderer before the embassy arrives. Hiro finds himself in an unenviable position--the murder weapon belongs to his ninja friend Kazu, Saburo's assistant, who, like Hiro, is on a secret assignment for the Iga school. Kazu swears to Hiro that he did not commit the murder, yet he won't give Hiro a clear answer about where he was the night of the crime. Though Hiro harbors doubts about his friend's innocence, plenty of other people--Saburo's wife, a stable boy, a maid, a master carpenter, and various government officials--nurse grievances against Saburo that could easily explain the murder. Moreover, the murder appears connected to a plot that endangers the shogun himself. With the fate of the city and the lives of Kazu and Fr. Mateo, a well as his own, at stake, Hiro must weigh the evidence and unveil the murderer with utmost speed and certainty.
Meticulously plotted, BLADE moves at an exciting, engaging clip. Hiro pursues suspects and unearths evidence with a ninja's stealth and finesse. His habits of observing before judging and of trying to provoke suspects into revealing themselves before he accuses them allows the reader time to piece the clues together for herself. The plot has just enough twists and turns to sustain interest without becoming confusing, and the reveal at the end has been so well-prepared as to be welcomed with pleasure.
As Father Mateo finds himself sidelined with unforeseen injuries for much of the novel, BLADE becomes Hiro's story, and the reader catches intriguing glimpses of the man behind the ninja. Spann portions out Hiro's personal history in tantalizing dribs and drabs, still revealing in this second book only the most basic facts about his personal background. Yet she begins to define Hiro's emotional landscape, a challenging task for a character whose livelihood and survival depend on the complete mastery of emotion. Not only does Japanese culture make a virtue of emotional control, but Hiro's ninja training has ingrained on him the grave danger of emotions: "A shinobi," he reminds himself, "must always remain detached from his mission. Real emotion was dangerous and forbidden." Yet as much as he fights them, emotions keep creeping in, complicating his task and threatening to cloud his judgment. Is his friendship with Father Mateo and the consequent exposure to Western affability and Christian ideals "softening" him, or has the wall behind which Hiro has dammed his feelings (one senses there is a deep emotional hurt, possibly involving a woman, in his past) springing hairline cracks on its own? It will be interesting to see how this struggle against emotion plays out in later books and where it ultimately leads the increasingly conflicted protagonist. For now, it is more than sufficient for forging bonds of sympathy between the reader and a man trained to kill with great efficiency and no remorse.
These intimations of Hiro's past and portents of his future contribute to Spann's greatest achievement so far: the successful integration of the story particular to each volume into the larger mystery that encompasses the entire series. Readers engage not only with the story questions of the murder under investigation, but with the broader questions of who has hired the assassin to protect Father Mateo and why. Hiro himself does not know the answers, and Spann keeps that grander mystery bubbling merrily on the burner as she concocts a heady brew of Japanese culture, early modern history, and basic human nature. BLADE OF THE SAMURAI will quench the thirst inspired by CLAWS, yet leave the reader panting eagerly for another gulp.
Tomorrow: Susan answers specific questions about BLADE OF THE SAMURAI and her writing process. In the meantime, you can learn more about her books and sixteenth-century Japan at her blog.