The Incense Game by Laura Joh Rowland

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The Incense Game: A Novel of Feudal Japan
303 pages; Minotaur Books
It's 1703, and Japan's capital, Edo (now known as Tokyo), has been ravaged by an earthquake. The city is filled with rubble, and the rubble is filled with bodies. While surveying the wreckage, Sano Ichiro, samurai, former police investigator and chamberlain to the shogun, Japan's ruler, finds three female corpses with crimson eyes—two women and their teacher, who, at the time of their demise, were playing an ancient game that required them to guess the ingredients in complex blends of incense. Sano senses that something is off about the bodies, and a cursory probing reveals that they don't owe their deaths to violent seismic activity but rather to arsenic. Sano reports the murder to the police, only to find himself blackmailed into finding the killer himself. Along with his brilliant and just plain butt-kicking wife, Lady Reiko, and his adroit and precocious 12-year-old son, Masahiro, he sets out into the decimated city. The ensuing investigation is fascinating, in large part because of the window it gives into the universe of the shogun's court, whose calculating politics are as chilling as Edo's gray, decimated winter landscape. As Sano mournfully observes, when it comes to his colleagues who work in this system, "There's always someone who wants to knock the high chestnut out of the tree." It shouldn't be so much fun to watch the courtiers play their deadly games, but as anyone who's ever gone on a weekend-long Tudors binge knows, there are few things as delicious as a good old-fashioned power struggle—especially the costume-drama variety, involving sword battles and perfectly timed barbs exchanged by witty women pretending that they're just drinking tea.
— Nathalie Gorman