Daughter of the Sword
by Steve Bein
Dr. Steve Bein was born in Oak Park, Illinois near Chicago several decades ago. As a young man he would attend university in a wide variety of places, his native Illinois, Germany, Hawaii, Nanzan and Obirin universities. It was there that he would translate works of Zen Buddhism and eventually earn a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Hawaii. He also picked up black belts in 2 forms of American martial arts and dabbled in a number of others. Today he teaches at the University of Dayton Ohio, where he lives with his partner and their dog. Dr. Bein has a number of short fictions published in Asimov's, Interzone and Writers of the Future. Today's review is his first published novel, released in 2012 with two sequels released since then and a pair of kindle only side stories set in the same world.
Daughter of the Sword takes place mostly in 2010 Tokyo and tells us the story of Mariko Oshiro, Tokyo's first and so far only woman detective. I have to admit at first I was skeptical of this, as while Japan is more traditional about gender roles than the United States, this is still the 21st century! However after a lot of research, including going to a number of message boards and asking because I couldn't read the Japanese sources (special thanks to the posters of spacebattles.com). It turns out to be shockingly plausible. The first woman chief of police was only installed in 2013 and Tokyo itself only allowed woman police officers to be stationed in Kobans (local police Kiosk from what I understand) a few years ago. So I suppose I was being a bit Americentric there. Anyway, let's look at Detective Oshiro shall we? Mariko is a driven and ambitious lady, having spent her girlhood in the United States, she feels somewhat removed from Japanese society. Her isolation from Japanese society is reinforced throughout the novel by a good number of people commenting how direct and rude she is. This is compounded by the fact that her ambition to be a police officer on the front lines is a goal that, most of her elders agree, a good Japanese girl shouldn't have. Mariko herself questions this, not having those ambitions, but why she is so dead set on achieving them in Japan when she could easily just light out for the United States and be a detective there. Instead, she’s thrown herself into the Tokyo police department and done well. For example she has, after a lot of sweat, blood, and tears gotten into the narcotics unit only to have her new Lt. (oh we'll get to him) over rule her deployment ideas for a sting and she finds her little sister Saori get swept up in the bust. Saori, unlike Mariko, isn't ambitious; she is however a drug addict. As you can guess this is a stormy relationship that runs throughout the novel but isn't the center focus. It's a fairly standard relationship between a junkie family member and a cop. Saori is upset that Mariko shows up when she's trying to buy drugs and then will demand that Mariko get her out of trouble. She’s also completely unrepentant for any wrongdoing while acting as the wronged party. Honestly I don't really care for Saori but I'm not supposed to. To Dr. Bein's credit, he doesn't spend enough time on Saori to allow her to get too annoying. She's established in the plot and then efficiently set forth to make her contribution to the plot. It's a bit mechanical honestly but I prefer that to some writers who will drag it out and cause me to grind my teeth.
The center focus is on swords. Many centuries ago, there existed a master swordsmith, Inazuma. His swords were so well made that the rest of Japan wouldn’t catch up for 200 years, in fact Inazuma's abilities were so great that it was commonly believed that his three greatest swords had magical powers. When Mariko is exiled by her Lt to investigating an attempted burglary of a sword, that's when we meet Professor Yasuo Yamada, who is the owner of one Inazuma sword and on a mad quest to destroy another. Unfortunately for him the last person he brought into the quest took the sword in question, went rogue and decided that what he needed to do was steal the good Professors sword as well. Just as an extra complication, the man in question is a member of the Yakuza and so has access to all sorts of underground resources to make this happen. Also, because Mariko doesn't have enough problems, Professor Yamada is pretty much blind, although thanks to decades of training is still a fairly powerful swordsman. He's also a bit of mystery being a scholar of the history of swordsmithing and swordsmanship with a number of books to his name and a number of friends in high places. He serves as sort of a mentor to Mariko here, teaching her some history and some swordplay as well as using his friends in high places to get her the resources she needs to investigate the crimes in question.
Which is a good thing because Mariko is going to need every scrap of help she can find, beg, barter or steal because her opponent, Fuchida Shuzo, isn't just a member of an underground crime organization but also a skilled swordsman himself, and insane. Fuchida is strangely one of the parts of the book I enjoy the most in a cringing way. He's a monster who has no care for his fellow human beings, to the point of holding most of them in contempt. That said many of his criticism of Japanese society are painfully on the nose and could apply just as well to American society. For example, he sneers at the salarimen of Japan for working long grueling hours and then going to a bar to suck up to a boss that doesn't really care about them, to advance in a job that none of them really care about. He's wrong to hold his fellow humans in contempt but he's right that it makes no sense to kill yourself for a system that at best views you as an easily replaceable cog. Mariko herself is less then thrilled with Japanese culture but unlike Fuchida she chooses to fight it head on, while Fuchida chooses to hold himself aloof. On the flip side it's not like Fuchida cares about people either, he's a cold blooded user of men and women in a manic pursuit of his goal. Ironically however, while Fuchida might be the death of Mariko and her family, it's Mariko's Lt. that takes up most of the antagonists duties in the plot.
Lt. Ko on the other hand is an old disgruntled man who makes no bones about believing that Mariko should content herself to serving coffee and letting her ass get pinched by any jr. officer with delusions of competency and be thankful for the attention. He's open about it in a way that I haven't run into inside the United States (although I'm sad to say I wouldn't to be shocked if I had woman readers who have. Disappointed in my fellow countrymen, but not shocked). We don't learn a lot about Ko in this story, his job is mostly to refuse Mariko resources, try to sabotage her, and mock her to her face in the kind of unprofessional display that would make even hollywood bosses sneer in disgust. I did find it interesting that neither Ko or Mariko actually their shared personality traits. Ko is rude by American standards, never you mind Japanese ones. He's the only one willing to tell Mariko to her face that he thinks this is a boys club and she has no place in it. He's also very direct and blunt about his plan to simply run her out of the unit and the department if possible. While Lt. Ko is a nasty, puffed up old bigot seeped in his own self importance and grudges, he's also pretty much the only person in this story who is up front and direct, except for Mariko Oshiro. Unlike Mariko and Fuchida, Lt. Ko isn't critical of his society but embraces it. Likely because while Mariko is on the outside due to her gender and Fuchida for being from a crime family, Ko is allowed a pretty cushy position.
The main story is broken up by three story lines that take place in the past of Japan, showing the past of each of the three swords in question. Each of the stories is more or less self contained but shows us directly the influence of the swords in question on their wielders. I honestly enjoyed these more then the main plot but only one of them had any importance to the plot so I am left wondering why they were in the novel. The nature of one of the other swords is shown in the main plot and is discussed fairly often by the characters themselves. So they don't feel entirely necessary, and at least one of the stories feels like it's there to pad out the novel a bit. That said the past storyline that does link into the plot manages to link in a way that is both interesting and somewhat compelling. That said I did feel somewhat put off by the suggestion that the reason for the abuse of American prisoners in the Philippines was due to a magic sword that induces insane blood lust in it's wielder. I might be reading to much into it but frankly I don't like subscribing human atrocities to supernatural causes and yes, I would feel the same way if we were talking about American atrocities. It's the same reason I don't care for stories that suggest Hitler was half demon or some kind of day walking vampire. When we take these real events and people and suggest their evil sprang from some inhuman source we are distancing ourselves from this behavior and I feel it's important to say that yes, human beings did these things and we have no one to blame but ourselves for our actions. That's not to suggest that there no goodness in human nature, there is plenty of it in my opinion, only that pretending there is no darkness lurking in the human soul makes it easier to cop out. I'm sure most people will think I'm just being fussy on this point but these reviews are my opinion, so on some stuff y'all will just have to deal with it.
Daughter of the Sword is a fairly good urban fantasy, it's plotted and written with efficiency comes off as a bit mechanical. Maybe it's because I’ve done so much reading in this review series. Some developments occur because that's what the plot says should happen, although Dr. Bein does a good job of making sure it fits with the characters motivations and prior actions. However, when I can tell what Saori's contribution to the plot will be in five pages of her showing up and predict Professor Yamada's fate... Well I have faith that more practice will help Dr. Bein smooth out the edges there. The dialogue is well done and the action fairly average in all honesty and Dr. Bein shows a good grasp of Japanese society at least from the view of Mariko who would be both an outsider and an insider. I found Mariko's position in society realistic as well, I'm the child of deaf parents and even now in my 30s there are elements of hearing culture that I don't follow as well as I should. That said no one would ever realize that just watching me go about my day. A fellow Japanese citizen wouldn't be able to tell Mariko wasn't entirely onboard with Japanese culture until they had a prolonged interaction with her and that makes sense. I'm still hopeful someone will find evidence that there are women detectives in the Tokyo police department however. Daughter of the Sword by Dr. Steven Bein gets a C. It's a good read, fun and serviceable but the predictability of the plot and sudden surprises at the end drag it down, as does the mechanical feeling of plot progression.
Next week, we turn to the future in Altered Carbon. Keep Reading!