This is another I Read This To Push It On The Unsuspecting Bitchery. It’s older, and not totally a romance, but it is a favorite of mine. It takes place in Feudal Japan, and is a version of the story of the 47 Samurai. I remember someone in the comments of… something… asking if both characters in Impulsive were Asian, and that’s it’s rare to get both main characters to be a minority. So here we are (although I planned to do this one long before that conversation even happened).
Cat is the daughter of a daimyo and his “outside wife” (acknowledged mistress). Her father, Lord Asano, had committed ritual suicide after a rival of his, Lord Kira, insulted him in front of the Shogun and Asano drew his sword. It is Very Very Bad to draw your sword in front of the shogun, hence the suicide.
Cat sold herself into prostitution to support her mother (who was left with nothing- acknowledged mistresses are not protected in the death of their lovers, especially when the wife is cranky), but dreams of getting revenge on Kira. So one night, she escapes from the Pleasure Quarter in Edo (Tokyo) and with the intent to walk the Tokaido Road from Edo to Kyoto.
She doesn’t have much of a plan, except to find Oishi, her father’s head retainer (and her teacher in martial arts), and make him do something to avenge her father. But what she does have is a talent for acting, a few friends on her side, mad fighting skillz, and pure determination. Her cause is righteous, and she’ll bring Kira down and/or die trying.
The madam of the prostitution house she works in (basically her owner) hires Hanshiro, a ronin (masterless samurai) to go hunt her down and bring her back. That’s mostly what he does- he finds lost things. He expects this to be an easy job, because women are silly- surely she just ran off with some man who waved his cucumber of love and said some pretty things, right?
It takes him about half the book to finally admit that he was totally wrong. Cat is many things, but silly is not one of them.
The first thing Cat does is call on a kabuki actor, friend, and someone who owes her a favor, Shichisaburo (a real person, apparently), who provides her with a disguise as a priest and a plan to beg along the Road. (It’s a stunning display of “I’m going to do something ill-advised, but I recognize I can’t actually do it all by myself, so I will ask for help.” No Too Stupid To Live to be found here.) Then she stops by her father’s grave, burns some incense, and sets off, where she discovers that begging kinda blows. She then runs into kago carriers (something like a crappy palanquin), who beg her to come to their village and deal with a homeless ghost.
This is the first major detour she takes- while planting a rice field, the peasants found human bones, and the kago carrier’s wife is quite convinced that her infertility is being caused by the ghost of the unmoored person. Cat is disguised as a type of priest that is known for being a little bit crazy (hoping that will cover for any mistakes she makes- since she is a woman and an upper class one at that, she knows very little about reality) (but at least she knows this), so she pulls an exorcism ritual out of her ass (and hopes, very much, that she doesn’t accidently summon anything. She also hopes that her efforts to help a homeless ghost, for whatever reason, will be seen as a net-good, so she won’t have to pay for it in karma later).
This is also the first time that young women get taken with the handsome young man Cat appears to be, and tries to get “him” to sleep with them. It happens quite a bit.
There’s a lot of detours and roadblocks she runs into- the homeless ghost, the famous priest she falls in with for a few days, the peasant girl she acquires, lots of enemies, rain, thieves, fire-walking, and lice ridden bedding. She goes though about five disguises, loses nearly all her belongings several times, and discovers the kindness of strangers and maybe the rigid world she grew up with isn’t that rigid, after all.
Again, since I like this book, and I want you to read it, I’m not going to summarize the whole thing.
In light of the Racefail 2009 fiasco of last year, this is a case of a white woman doing a crapton of research and applying it. She paints feudal Japan vividly, and avoids the trap of being too in awe or sentimental over it, and she avoids being all, “My god, isn’t the this shit crazy?” judgmental (and some of that shit does seem pretty crazy). She presents 18th century Japan as a fully realized world, with nuanced characters, rich locations, and all sorts of food (oh my god you guys, the food). She talks about history, poetry, Buddhist thought, clothing, martial arts- she’s done her research and knows how to use it.
One of the things I look for in a book is that the main characters go on a journey (not always as literal as this one), and learn and change. Cat is on a journey, a literal one and a figurative one. She starts out as a pampered, spoiled girl who had never done a speck of physical labor in her life. She is somewhat better prepared than most women of her class (she does decide to go to Kyoto, after all) but when she runs away from the brothel, she is a bit stymied about what to pack- she’d never packed for a trip before. She’d never used money to buy things before.
Thanks to the people she meets along the way, and her own willingness to learn from life, she becomes more than capable. She learns that people that are not in her class are not automatically stupid, she learns that she can pull off the impossible. Before the journey, she looks on charity as a barter system- do good stuff, and good stuff will happen to her. As she travels, she learns about doing good stuff to help people just makes her feel good. Not purely altruistic (thank you, Pheobe) but close enough. And she learns how to love- not just Hanshiro, but Kasane, too.
Kasane, the peasant woman Cat acquires, is also on a journey. She left her village with a group that included her younger brother to go on pilgrimage. Pirates killed everyone but her, and sold her to a pimp, who sold her to a succession of inns and stole her back each night. Cat had a run in with the pimp and killed him, and took Kasane with her so she couldn’t identify Cat to the authorities. She fully intended to leave Kasane in the next town, but stuff keeps happening, Kasane is so useful (“Finally someone else was carrying Cat’s things. The world was back to normal.”) and Kasane looks so sad and so lost when Cat tries to leave her (kind of like that puppy in the window) that Cat’s like “FINE YOU CAN COME TO THE NEXT TOWN BUT THAT IS IT” and by the time they get to the next town, they work so well together, that’s it. They are a team, and also a family.
(Of course, it’s several more towns before Cat tells Kasane who she really is, and exactly why there are all these people chasing them trying to kill them. Kasane, being a sensible girl, takes this all in stride.)
Kasane learns how the greater world works, how to flirt (which is freakin’ adorable, by the way), and how to read and write. She loves Cat unconditionally, and by the time they reach Mount Fuji, Cat adores Kasane and will not allow anyone to fuck with her. Kasane acquires an admirer on the road, and once they’ve flirted by letter most of the way from Edo to Kyoto, Cat knocks him down and interrogates him on his intentions before allowing him to even talk to Kasane. She takes her role as the elder sibling very, very seriously.
Hanshiro himself is also on a journey. He’s a hired gun that would really like the world to follow the strictures of bushido, but knows it does not. It makes him cranky. The master he swore his sword to when he was a young man lost all his money and became a wandering monk, so Hanshiro has no one he’s bound to. He’d been taking jobs hunting down runaway people, and he really likes the chase.
“It was happening as it usually did.
Hanshiro was always alert; but once the chase started something stirred and stretched inside him. Something yawned and flashed long, ivory fangs and a pink predator’s tongue. Something sniffed the odors in the eddies of the wind and rumbled hungrily far back in its throat.”
He’s bored and disillusioned with life. But he doesn’t have a purpose until he realizes what Cat is doing. She’s serving a greater purpose, so he makes her purpose his.
Of course their first meeting isn’t very auspicious. She’s in disguise as an acolyte, and she knows he’s after her, but he does not know who she is.
“Cat stiffened. She might not know the price of a rice cake or a ferry ride, but she recognized danger, even if it had left its long sword politely at the door.”
It takes quite a while before she trusts him- she makes him stand out in the rain all night, she yells at him, tries to kill him (to be fair, about that, he’s been on her tail since she left Edo, and she knows it. She assumes he’s working for Kira, so…) before she very, very grudgingly accepts his oath of loyalty to her. And when she thinks he’s been killed, she very calmly, and very coldly, completely loses her shit. When they finally do hook up, it’s achingly sweet. And very appropriate for the two warriors.
I love Robinson because she has a talent for writing that is clear, beautiful, and with just a touch of wry snark. She describes things like what happened with Cat’s father in a way that isn’t awkward info –dumping. She’s managed to describe all these things from the ground up, showing what the reader needs, but not being overblown about it. In addition, and I love this, she weaves in the Japanese and the translations in a way that is neither repetitive, nor awkward.
“Is she a kurage, a change of saddles?”
“No, she’s not a habitual runaway.”
See? You get both the idiom and what it means.
“The word Tosa began a resonance inside Hanshiro, not in his head, but in the center of his spirit behind his navel. It spread outward in a shudder of longing for his homeland. He remembered the stunning view from the barrier at Pine Tree Assent. Green mountains, azure sea, waves washing among the roots of gnarled pines along the shore far below. He remembered surrendering his exit permit there. He remembered the intense ache of being set adrift from the country of his birth and upbringing, the home of his ancestors.”
Now, I know that some people have gone over to my blog from here (I see the site stats, don’t lie) and in early October, I posted about the bullying I endured in high school, and how it was centered in my Japanese class. And one of the results of the entire mess was that most things Japanese gave me PTSD-like tremors. This book was one of the few things that didn’t. I bought it at a B. Dalton (way back in the day) on remainder when I was in seventh grade, and it’s one of those books I’ve taken every time I’ve moved (and that’s a lot). I’ve re-read it I don’t know how many times. It’s a security blanket book for me.
I think one of the reasons I’ve kept it with me is it’s the story of a woman who rises above adversity (a name she takes on briefly is “Shinobu,” which means “endurance.”) and kicks some serious ass while doing it. That’s a message I really needed at the time I bought it, and remembered to get through the next several years. And sometimes I still do.