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Seiko is a child of Inari–or, rather, daughter of one of the god’s priestesses. Orphaned at a young age, through a series of events she finds herself ensconced in the royal palace itself, aide to the empress of twelfth century Japan. As herbalist and midwife, it is her duty to help the empress conceive and give birth to the son that will secure the current royal family’s possession of the throne. Time is ticking, and rival factions gather at the gates!

It took me a few tries to get into this novel. While it is a work of fiction, it is by no means simple brain candy, and so did not come across as the sort of pabulum that’s commonly found on the big box shelves. While it was a quick read, it didn’t follow many of the typical tropes and events found in much of today’s fiction. For example, there’s not the usual buildup toward one specific climax of the story. While near the end there is quite the significant event, it is merely one of several important twists and turns to the tale.

More interestingly, where many novels might focus on the military aspect of this time period, instead this one follows Seiko as she spends year after year within the palace walls, building relationships with other women who are there to find suitable husbands, and participating in exchanges of poetry among the court, an art form on many levels (not the least of which being subtle communication hidden in symbols). The author boldly tells of Seiko’s sexual exploits, with women and men alike, as well as the details of childbirths and illnesses. These things may seem somewhat sedate compared to military maneuverings, sword duels, and ambushes, but the novel holds it own even better for the lack of these.

I will admit that I was a bit disappointed with the ending, hopefully without giving away too many details. While I understand that this is the first of a series, and the author wished to leave an opening for the next book, the final chapter delving into a sudden rush of political activity after so much relative domesticity was jarring. While the political context of events throughout the book was clear, it took a backseat to seemingly everyday events, and that last bit seemed tacked on to try to move on to the next book.

The other thing that I expected was more involvement of Seiko’s role as a priestess of Inari, especially given the title of the series. This element of her life, though, seemed to be almost a background, something to be mentioned from time to time, but not really a major part of her life or the story itself. I would have liked to have seen more overt discussion about Inari’s presence in her life and how that was connected to the things we got to see a lot of, such as her sex life, and her healing abilities.

Overall, though, I really liked this book, and I’m looking forward to more from this author. If you’d like a good read that isn’t the usual mass-marketed pulp and particularly if you like interesting, well-rounded and engaging female main characters, pick this one up.

~review by Lupa

Author: Cerridwen Fallingstar

Cauldron Publications, 2009
356 pages, $19.95

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