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From The Asian Reporter, V17, #49 (December 4, 2007), page 16.
Mystery among the mines of Sado Island
Island of Exiles
By I.J. Parker
Penguin Books, 2007
Paperback, 398 pages, $14.00
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
Easily the longest and most complex book in I.J. Parkerís brilliant series about the detective Akitada Sugawara, Island of Exiles is also among Parkerís best. In his most dangerous assignment yet, Akitada must masquerade as a prisoner and journey to Japanís Sado Island, a penal colony, to unravel the murder of an exiled prince.
Along the way, the reader tours a wholly new area of Heian-era Japan, with fascinating Asian cultural and historical facts; Parkerís extensive research and adherence to period authenticity is what elevates her books above the level of merely exciting, well-crafted mysteries. As with all her Akitada books, Island of Exiles mixes these interesting tidbits of ancient Japan with a page-turning, rollicking ride that will leave her readers breathless with excitement.
Akitada is a minor nobleman, working as an even more minor justice official in 11th-century Japan, who has made a name for himself as a persistent, if iconoclastic, investigator in difficult cases. But nonconformity is not appreciated in ancient Japan, least of all by Akitadaís resentful superior, who sent the clerk and his family to faraway Eichigo to act as regional governor in Parkerís last book, The Black Arrow. Even after Akitada solved a murder case and thwarted an imminent uprising, he and his family continue to endure penury and harsh conditions in chilly Eichigo, waiting for orders to return to the capital of Heian-Kyo.
When imperial officials arrive one day, Akitada hopes they carry just such a reprieve, but instead their orders plunge him even further into danger. Akitada must disguise himself as a prisoner to investigate the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Prince Okisada, who had been exiled to Sado Island for plotting to overthrow the emperor. The son of Sadoís governor has been implicated in the murder, but much more seems to be brewing on the island, perhaps another rebellion, and the son looks to have been conveniently framed with the murder.
Once on Sado, Akitada soon finds that the island hides many more mysteries than the death of the prince. The guards treat the prisoners cruelly, working many to death in cramped conditions in mines. And what is being mined, as well as who it benefits, is known by very few. Fortunately, Akitada avoids mine work as a scribe, and the governor ó the only one on Sado who knows his true identity ó assigns him to a constable who is collecting information on the murder. But when his true identity and secret mission are discovered, Akitadaís life is instantly in peril. Far from his family and his loyal retainer Tora, Akitada must hope against all hope that someone will come to save him soon.
As she always does in her books, Parker unfolds a new part of 11th-century Japan for her readers: Sado Island, a world unto itself. Buddhist beliefs meant that the death penalty was rarely used in Heian-era Japan; instead, violent and dangerous criminals were exiled to Sado, where they endured the conditions Akitada finds during his investigations. The religious beliefs of the period both provide the setting and subtly inform the nature of several important characters who lie at the heart of the princeís murder.
We not only see the conditions prisoners endured on Sado Island, but Parker also shows us the conditions suffered by Japanís poor. When they are not prisoners, Sadoís residents are often victims of economic imprisonment. Some of the most moving scenes in the book show the abject poverty of the lowest classes, from the lengths to which they go for money to the cruel effects of Japanís males-first traditions. And Parker weaves all these facts skillfully into the plot, in a way that feels organic and is neither intrusive nor melodramatic.
On the most basic level, Parker is simply a very talented writer. Her descriptions crackle with tight, accurate prose, while her ability to juggle the multiple storylines in the plot without confusing her readers or losing their interest is nothing short of masterful ó she excels at keeping the book open and the pages turning. And Island of Exiles never feels like a rehash of her earlier books, as Parker allows her characters to grow and develop in each new conflict and setting. Akitada faces threats not only to his life but also to his marriage, as he reassesses his emotional connection to his wife. Parker is forever introducing the unexpected, although her dedicated readers always know to expect an exciting plot filled with memorable characters and fascinating period details. This is never more true than with Island of Exiles, an excellent introduction to this clever and likeable detective, as well as an outstanding continuation of Parkerís ever-improving Akitada Sugawara mystery series.