This is a book review submitted by our Kindle fan in Penang, Richard Ho. Thanks Richard, hope you post more!
Since this coming December would mark a full 2 years since I purchased a Kindle e-reader, I think the time is right for starting a backburner project, which is to post and share a review of the many wonderful e-books I’ve been privileged to read in the previous months. This month’s review is a mystery thriller set in the Land of the Rising Sun nearly a millennium ago.
The Dragon Scroll is the first book in the multi-volume Akitada Mysteries by I.J. Parker, and introduces the protagonist Sugawara Akitada, a young nobleman who is sent on a mission to investigate missing tax convoys in a remote province far away from the capital city. Unbeknownst to him, the powers that be had planned for him to fail in his first assignment as imperial envoy, and be somehow discredited and foiled in his budding career as a junior clerk in the Justice Ministry.
I was led by curiosity to this volume in the historical mystery genre mainly because of my familiarity with the older Judge Dee mystery series by Robert van Gulik which features the exploits of the well-known Chinese magistrate of the Tang dynasty, and I must say that I have not been disappointed in this book. Perhaps this is due to the author I.J.Parker’s skillful recreation of the world of medieval Japan or maybe it is the artful and humane characterization of people in the story that allows the reader to cross the portals of time and space, and to experience a bygone era that is so different from our often dreary modern and post-industrial digital age.
In fact, being a bit of a history and exotic travel buff, the first thing I appreciate is the setting of the story in 11th century Japan, which is near the tail end of the Heian period, often considered a classical era of Japanese history. This is of course before the enduring Samurai Age when the rise of the shoguns (military dictators) greatly eclipsed the power of the imperial house and royal institution. In stride with the hero Akitada, the reader can immerse in a heady milieu where the classical institutions of old Japan are still in full play, such as the powerful aristocratic families and the influential Buddhist clergy which competed for imperial favour in the twilight of the Heian period.
The Akitada mysteries series is often compared to the Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee books, with the latter set in 7th century Tang China, and with some reviewers feeling that I.J.Parker had borrowed heavily from van Gulik’s groundbreaking work in the Oriental mysteries genre. Readers who have read the Judge Dee stories will surely not fail to note many seeming similarities; besides the ancient Far Eastern setting, the protagonist is a sleuth out to solve mysteries and crimes with a dedicated team of assistants. After reading The Dragon Scroll, however, it becomes clear that beyond the similarities, I.J.Parker has created a storyline and cast of characters that are unique in their own right and also greatly likeable as human beings that we can identify with. Besides Akitada, the reader is introduced to the other main characters that will recur in the later books, namely Seimei the old and loyal family retainer, and Tora the boorish but funny and handsome young sidekick.
The Dragon Scroll is the first in terms of chronology for the Akitada mysteries series, although it is not the first to be written, having been preceded by other works in real time publication. However, it is best read first as it is the ‘origins’ volume that provides a great foundation for moving on with the other books, if one is so inclined after sampling this easy read introductory volume.
On a 5-star scale, I would give The Dragon Scroll 4 stars for being a great easy read with a liberal dose of action, romance, intrigue, crime and murder all rolled into an exotic historical setting. Although it may not satisfy everyone, I believe most connoisseurs of the mystery thriller and whodunit would find it adequately entertaining. A casual read through may even prompt some to further research Heian era Japan, as the author weaves into the plot some interesting social and cultural elements. These range from courtship and love matters among the aristocracy and commoners, to the lesser known sexual practices hidden behind the impregnable walls of monastic and temple life.
The Dragon Scroll is available for purchase as a Kindle e-book from Amazon (US) for USD4.99 which is about USD10 off the print copy price. Readers who have never sampled a historical mystery could very well give it a go. A reading foray into a new genre is a great way to while away a few hours, with your Kindle and a hot cup of Milo in hand, when you’re stuck at home (by choice or otherwise) on a rainy October night.