Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Review: THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER: A Hiro Hattori Novel by Susan Spann

Exciting as it is to discover a new author's works, it can be even more satisfying to watch a favorite author's novels grow richer and ever more compelling. Susan Spann takes her Shinobi Mysteries to a new level with this fourth installment, THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER, newly released from Seventh Street Books. Spann sets ninja detective Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo on a quest to identify the killer of an actor's daughter found strangled on a riverbank in sixteenth century Kyoto, Japan. As the men question suspects and seek motives, Spann probes the pair's pasts and scrutinizes their deepening friendship. Tantalizing glimpses of Hiro's and Mateo's inner lives enhance the novel's well-constructed plot and endow the story with an emotional richness the series' earlier books lacked.

From the back cover: When an actor's daughter is murdered on the banks of Kyoto's Kamo River, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo are the victim's only hope for justice. As political tensions rise in the wake of the shogun's recent death and rival samurai threaten war, the Kyoto police forbid an investigation of the killing, to keep the peace. Undeterred, Hiro and Father Mateo undertake a secret investigation into the exclusive world of Kyoto's theater guilds, where nothing, and no one, is as it seems. Their investigation soon reveals a mysterious golden coin, a forbidden love affair, a missing mask, and a dangerous link to corruption that leaves both Hiro and Father Mateo running for their lives.

Of particular interest and importance to this book is its theatrical setting. Although their vocation required them to interact with members of the upper classes, Japanese society of the time viewed actors as social outcasts, individually dispensable and subject to strict rules of etiquette. Within a troupe itself, an actor's position and duties were determined by age, skill, and sex. Choosing an actor's daughter--the lowest of the low--as the murder victim allows Spann to not only expose her readers to a fascinating milieu, but to examine questions of personal dignity and self-determination--questions upon which Father Mateo's Christian worldview sets him in direct oppostion to Hiro's cultural mores. Plunged into a world where masks are continually donned then shed, Hiro and Mateo find their own masks--the habitual personas they've adopted to survive--beginning to slip. The murdered girl's similarity to someone in Father Mateo's past affects him deeply and causes him to reveal to Hiro memories long suppressed; Hiro, though displaying an assassin's ruthlessness when circumstances require it (and they do), finds himself questioning long-held assumptions and betraying a compassion his sardonic veneer cannot completely hide. No longer deniable, the influence of each man on the other lends a certain piquancy to their interactions and an added dimension to their investigation, which seeks to reclaim the dignity of a woman robbed of the destiny she struggled to forge.

Spann's handles the large cast of characters and intricate plot with deft assurance, taking care to insert the immediate mystery into the overarching political conflict without overwhelming it. Likewise, she provides enough context from the previous books to orient new readers without boring dedicated fans (or spoiling the earlier tales' reveals). Hiro's wry perspective and dry humor provide a delicious counterbalance to Father Mateo's honest earnestness and selfless dedication to saving souls. If you've yet to read a Hiro Hattori mystery, you're in for a treat; if you've enjoyed the earlier installments, you'll find THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER particularly satisfying--even as it leaves you hungry for Hiro's next adventure.

Susan Spann has published three previous novels in the Shinobi Mystery series: CLAWS OF THE CAT, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, and FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER. She has a lifelong love of Japanese history and culture. When not writing, Susan works as a transactional attorney and raises seahorses in her marine aquarium. You can learn more about Susan and her books at her website.

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