Bella Swan in the Heian Imperial Court?

Review: Of Death and Black Rivers by Ann Woodward

A keeper? No doubt!

I’m a sucker for all things Heian. And besides, this is a well-written little mystery.

But Bella Swan? Well, we start out with poor self-conscious Lady Saisho getting in trouble with the Empress yet again, because she’s too embarrassed to walk across the verandah and get into the waiting oxcart. Lady Saisho has a habit of inconveniencing all the other ladies in waiting while she spends long periods being exquisitely shy.

Her parents sent her to court so she could learn enough social skills to marry. But she’ll never find a husband behaving like this, now will she? Not in a court where ladies are expected to exchange flirtatious letters with gentlemen and even sometimes speak to them – even let their faces be seen, on occasion!

And yet, somehow she manages to run away with a dangerous, handsome, famous general who’s just back from winning a war in the north. Did she really leave the court of her own free will, or did he force her? How much danger is she in? Will he – metaphorically, of course – suck the life out of her?

Lady Aoi (our over-educated, not terribly ladylike detective) is concerned about silly Lady Saisho, even though she doesn’t much like her. But there are other things going wrong at court. The Empress has been persistently ill. Important officials are suddenly dropping dead for no clear reason – usually while out hunting with Lady Saisho’s general. And the poor but brilliant Teacher who once worked for Lady Aoi’s father (and worked for the General’s father before that, back when the General was a boy) has been found, murdered, in the burnt-out ruins of his home. All his books, ancient treasures and his own memoirs, are lost.

How could all these dramatic and dreadful things happen in a place like Heian-Kyo, the imperial city dedicated to arts, poetry, and flirtation? The answers will shake the entire court. (Though the people in this story don’t know it, they foreshadow what will happen in the whole country over the next few centuries.) It takes all the cleverness and courage Lady Aoi and her friends can find to restore matters to their normal calm.

And Lady Saisho? Well…does Bella Swan finally get what she wants, no matter who she has to hurt to reach her goals?

3 responses to “Bella Swan in the Heian Imperial Court?

  1. I’m a little confused 🙂 i would have to give them all pronounceable names to begin with and i would love to send my daughters away to school see if they actually learn to be ladies. I sounds like a good read.

    • 🙂
      They’re Japanese names – makes sense since the story is taking place in Japan about a thousand years ago. (I generally just sail through by pronouncing the names in my head the way I think they look – of course if I was going to talk, out loud, to someone who speaks Japanese I’d have to try harder to get it right. Then again, nobody really expects a foreigner to have perfect pronunciation! Or that’s my excuse.)

      Also – maybe I should have explained a bit more about the customs of the period which are very strange from our point of view. Basically, upper-class women spent most of their time concealed behind portable screens about four feet high. Um, about 1.2 meters. (They were very very short people and spent most of the time sitting on the floor anyhow, so apparently this worked to keep them out of sight!) The girls / young women – teenagers to early twenties, mostly – who were ladies in waiting at court spent some of their time acting more or less as hostesses to (male) official visitors, so they had to develop more social skills and less shyness than girls who stayed at home. But these ladies in waiting still spent a lot of time behind their screens.

      Lady Aoi (in my head I pronounce this one “aye-oy-ee”, which is probably totally wrong!) is considered unladylike because she knows Chinese (the high prestige language of her time and place) and isn’t afraid to talk to men.

      Anyhow, it was a good read.

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