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The Shrine Virgin: An Akitada Novel (Akitada Mysteries Book 14) Kindle Edition
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My criticisms are that the book is thematically thin, and that it misses a number of opportunities for serious suspense and depth.
There's little in the way of a moral to the story, except a very light treatment of Parker's consistent illumination of the evils of the caste system of Heian-era Japan. More noticeably, this particular novel traverses a number of situations with opportunities for suspense, but either passes them by entirely, or offers resolutions that play out too quickly and easily to grip the reader in a page-turner sort of way. As a result the story is more melodramatic when it could have been "nail-biting epic."
[Caution: Potential spoiler alert...] In addition, the subplot involving Tora and Saburo's investigation of piracy remains separate from the main milieu involving Akitada - almost as if the former were presented as a mere setup of conflict with local law enforcement for future editions. I'd been expecting the missing princess and piracy cases to be somehow intertwined - therefore more complex and intriguing as a whole - but they were separate. I was also surprised that the titular character, the princess who's the Ise Shrine Virgin, only appears in a single scene, a virtual walk-on role. I'd expected her story to be told in tandem to the enrichment of the main plot, but she's only referenced in third person.
Another, more general criticism is that Parker has chosen a chronological rather than episodic format for the series. In this book in particular we get a lot of references to both Akitada and Saburo aging and therefore becoming reduced in their physical capacities. That's an obvious nod to authenticity but with a heavy downside: It diminishes the stature of both characters, and therefore the novel as a whole. I'm not sure it's possible to present a character who traverses life events like becoming a widower, remarrying and expanding a family without also referencing aging, but given a series based on a repeating character, he either has to be presented as "timeless" or at some point retiring, which latter would mean ending the Akitada series, and nobody wants that.
In the case of a secondary character like Saburo, he could retire and remain a minor character while another enters the "cast" - like the intriguing character Junichiro. But Akitada is the focal point of the series, which means he has to remain sharp and functional for the series to maintain its appeal. In this novel he seems soft and almost coddled by Parker - even when he's in peril we don't really fear for him much, and his emergence from harm is generally too facile - certainly more so than the gripping ordeal he escaped in "Island of Exiles."
On the significant upside, once again we're immersed in an atmosphere that's palpable in its realism, and surrounded by a cast of vivid characters. The era comes alive in Parker's prose, almost as if you're standing there in person, and plot and setting alike are intriguing and memorable. I'm looking forward to diving into the next in the series, but I'm also hoping it will have more depth and suspense than this one. 'Nonetheless excellent entertainment and time well spent.
I love all the Akitada books and identify with the characters as an Asian American learning about how my heritage affects my personal culture. My only reservation stems from the main character's adaptation of very Western Christian and modern individualistic values, which I dont feel would be very successful in Heian Japan. It certainly creates more empathy, and possibly illustrates the internal struggles of a people that are unbelievably strong and selfless, bound by duty to country and rules of society.
My experience living in Japan was the most enriching and beautiful of my life. I saw the most gracious of humankind and learned how to appreciate beauty in the minutiae. The Akitada mysteries take me back with joy, and I return to them often.