Review: Flask of the Drunken Master by Susan Spann + Giveaway

flask of the drunken master by susan spannFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genre: historical mystery
Series: Shinobi Mystery #3
Length: 304 pages
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Date Released: July 14, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Master ninja Hiro Hattori and his companion Father Mateo are once again pulled into a murder investigation when a rival artisan turns up dead outside of their friend Ginjiro’s sake brewery. They must find the killer before the magistrate executes Ginjiro, seizes the brewery, and renders his family destitute. All the evidence implicates the brewer, yet with Kyoto on alert in the wake of the shogun’s recent death, Ginjiro’s is not the only life at risk.

As tensions rise, Hiro investigates a missing merchant, a vicious debt collector, a moneylender and the victim’s spendthrift son. But when a drunken Buddhist monk insists on helping Hiro and Father Mateo solve the crime, the monk’s bumbling threatens to foil the investigation altogether. With time running out, Hiro once again gambles on a clandestine mission to find the truth. Except that this time, Hiro isn’t the only one with a secret mission to fulfill.

My Review:

claws of the cat by susan spannWhile every bit as captivating as its two predecessors, Claws of the Cat and Blade of the Samurai (enthusiastically reviewed here and here) it also takes off in slightly different direction from those previous two books in this series.

In their earlier adventures, Father Mateo and his bodyguard, the shinobi (read ninja) Hiro found themselves investigating within the halls of power; solving murders at the heart of the shogunate, risking their lives to determine the guilt or innocence of possible killers with their own lives tied to the results of a successful investigation under excruciating time pressure.

In Flask of the Drunken Master, while the crime is still serious, their own lives do not directly hang in the balance. And they are working far from the halls of power. The sake brewer Ginjiro has been accused of murdering his rival Chikao with one of his own sake flasks in the back of his own shop.

It does not help Ginjiro’s case that the two men were heard arguing earlier that evening, to the point of exchanging the kind of threats and insults that always come back to haunt one whenever the other party to the argument turns up dead.

Ginjiro is not a friend of Hiro’s, because samurai cannot be friends with merchants. But Hiro feels that owes Ginjiro a debt of honor. It also seems as if Hiro has an unrequited crush on Ginjiro’s lovely daughter Tomiko, but then, so do half the men in the neighborhood.

Tomiko is certain that her father is not guilty. But of course she would be. Ginjiro seems to be a genuinely good man. But so was the murder victim, Chikao. However, Chikao’s son Kauru is a spoiled, self-centered pig. And I just insulted pigs.

More importantly, Ginjiro does not benefit from Chikao’s murder. None of that seems to matter to the magistrate, who immediately carts Ginjiro to prison to be tortured until he confesses to a crime that he probably did not commit.

Hiro, with Father Mateo’s help, has four days at most to figure out who the real killer is and prove it. In the course of his investigation he turns up all too many people with a motive, but can’t find one who can be proved to have had the opportunity.

Except poor Ginjiro.

As Hiro races the clock to make sure that an innocent man isn’t punished, he is also confronted with the indirect results of his actions in the previous stories. The shogunate is under contention, and Kyoto is under siege by samurai belonging to one of the rival powers. Unfortunately for Hiro and Father Mateo, their housemate has been gun running to too many of the possible contenders.

By the end of the case, Hiro knows that there is a storm coming in to Kyoto that will test his loyalty and his honor. All he can do is watch which way the winds blow.

Escape Rating A: Flask of the Drunken Master was the perfect antidote for the awful book I reviewed yesterday at The Book Pushers. It’s wonderful when karma works its powers for good!

In previous reviews I have compared Hiro and his investigative methods to Brother Cadfael in Ellis Peters’ landmark historical mystery series, and I felt that resemblance even more strongly in this book. Cadfael usually investigated crimes that involved ordinary people, and the case of the brewer Ginjiro and his dead rival was certainly a case of that type.

blade of the samurai by susan spannHiro also solves cases the way that Cadfael does. He has no forensic science except his own knowledge of how dead bodies appear, and how people act, or don’t act, in and especially out of character. He is intelligent and determined. Also occasionally ruthless. He gets to the bottom of the case, even when, as in the cases in Blade of the Samurai, it is very possible that the criminal is a friend or colleague.

As a shinobi, or shadow warrior, Hiro is always an outsider, always an observer, even when he seems to be most at home. He does not completely belong to any group, so he can be a relatively disinterested observer.

It is fascinating to watch the changes in Hiro’s relationship with Father Mateo. The scene where Hiro realizes that has not respected Father Mateo’s beliefs, and that he owes amends, is excellent and something we could all learn from. Hiro finally realizes that even though he does not and never will believe as Mateo does, he needs to respect Mateo’s beliefs and his sincerity in them.

As each story in this series unfolds, we see more and more into this time and place that was so completely closed from Western eyes, and possibly with good reason. Mateo’s foreignness allows Hiro to pry by proxy into areas and places where the strict rules of his society do not allow, and at the same time gives him an insight to question his beliefs, whether to confirm them or confront them.

This is a partnership and a setting that I will be happy to return to again and again.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m very happy to say that I am able to give away a copy of Flask of the Drunken Master to one lucky U.S. or Canadian commenter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews.
***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

15 for 15: My Most Anticipated Books for 2015


I took a look at last year’s list, and was surprised and pleased to discover that I read almost everything I was looking forward to, and even better, liked them! (I have the other two books, but just haven’t gotten a round tuit yet. This is what TBR piles are made of.)

It’s also hard not to miss the trend. The books I’m looking forward to are sequels to things I read last year or new pieces of ongoing series. It is difficult to anticipate something if you don’t know that it exists.

And even though these books aren’t being released until sometime in 2015, I already have arcs for a few of them, and have even read a couple. So far, the stuff I’m looking forward to is every bit as good as I’m hoping it will be.

Speaking of hopes, the dragon book is for Cass (Surprise, surprise!) She adored the first book in the series, liked the second one a lot, and has high hopes for the third one. Because, dragons.

So what books can’t you wait to see in 2015? 


Most anticipated in 2015:
Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch #3) by Ann Leckie
Dreaming Spies (Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #13) by Laurie R. King
The End of All Things (Old Man’s War #6) by John Scalzi
Flask of the Drunken Master (Shinobi Mystery #3) by Susan Spann
The Invasion of the Tearling (Queen of the Tearling #2) by Erika Johansen
Last First Snow (Craft Sequence #4) by Max Gladstone
Madness in Solidar (Imager Portfolio #9) by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Obsession in Death (In Death #40) by J.D. Robb
A Pattern of Lies (Bess Crawford #7) by Charles Todd
Pirate’s Alley (Sentinels of New Orleans #4) by Suzanne Johnson
Ryder: American Treasure (Ryder #2) by Nick Pengelley
Shards of Hope (Psy-Changeling #14) by Nalini Singh
The Talon of the Hawk (Twelve Kingdoms #3) by Jeffe Kennedy
The Terrans (First Salik War #1) by Jean Johnson
The Voyage of the Basilisk (Memoir by Lady Trent #3) by Marie Brennan

Review: Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann + Giveaway

blade of the samurai by susan spannFormat read: ebook provided by Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook, hardcover
Genre: Historical mystery
Series: Shinobi Mysteries, #2
Length: 304 pages
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Date Released: July 15, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

June, 1565: Master ninja Hiro Hattori receives a pre-dawn visit from Kazu, a fellow shinobi working undercover at the shogunate. Hours before, the shogun’’s cousin, Saburo, was stabbed to death in the shogun’s palace. The murder weapon: Kazu’s personal dagger. Kazu says he’s innocent, and begs for Hiro’s help, but his story gives Hiro reason to doubt the young shinobi’s claims.

When the shogun summons Hiro and Father Mateo, the Portuguese Jesuit priest under Hiro’s protection, to find the killer, Hiro finds himself forced to choose between friendship and personal honor.

The investigation reveals a plot to assassinate the shogun and overthrow the ruling Ashikaga clan. With Lord Oda’s enemy forces approaching Kyoto, and the murderer poised to strike again, Hiro must use his assassin’s skills to reveal the killer’s identity and protect the shogun at any cost. Kazu, now trapped in the city, still refuses to explain his whereabouts at the time of the murder. But a suspicious shogunate maid, Saburo’s wife, and the shogun’s stable master also had reasons to want Saburo dead. With the shogun demanding the murderer’s head before Lord Oda reaches the city, Hiro and Father Mateo must produce the killer in time . . . or die in his place.

My Review:

Blade of the Samurai takes place one year after the successful conclusion of the case that marked the opening book in this terrific series, Claws of the Cat (reviewed here).

claws of the cat by susan spannJust like Claws of the Cat, the mystery in Blade of the Samurai is steeped in Japanese politics and culture. At the same time, the possible suspects for the murder include many whose motives are purely personal.

It is up to the shinobi Hiro to determine the real killer. In this case, he is drawn into the mystery because his fellow shinobi, Kazu, a secret informer planted within the shogunate itself, may be the killer. Or he may just have been a young idiot.

Hiro must find the true killer in order to keep his, and Kazu’s, secrets. But he fears that Kazu is lying to him, and that he is the murderer after all. For the sake of his own honor, Hiro must determine the truth.

It is possible that the murder is part of a plot to overthrow the shogun. It is also possible that the victim’s lover murdered him, or that his wife murdered him for threatening to divorce her. Even more confusing for Hiro, it is entirely possible that the man was murdered because he was an unpleasant, privileged asshat that made certain that everyone near him hated him.

There are many too many possible suspects. The field narrows when they start dying in suspicious circumstances. Hiro is certain that a string of supposed suicides among people who have information for his investigation is well beyond the range of coincidence.

Hiro wants Kazu to be innocent, or at least as innocent as their mutual profession allows them to be. But the longer Kazu refuses to admit where he was on the night of the initial murder, the guiltier he looks. And Kazu is guilty, but not of this crime. Just of being a young idiot.

It is astonishing to discover that Hiro is only 25, and that his friend Kazu is merely 20. But Kazu’s actions make much more sense in light of his age.

Kazu is not the only person covering up the truth in this case. The maid who discovered the body has almost as many faces as the two shinobi.

Following along in Hiro’s footsteps is a fascinating pleasure. In this particular case, while his uncovering of the killer is absorbing, even more fascinating is the aftermath. The secrets revealed at the end change our perceptions of the case and the investigators.

Blade of the Samurai is historical mystery as it should be done.

Escape Rating A+: As much as I loved this, I still want the story of Hiro and Mateo’s first meeting, or Hiro’s assignment to Mateo’s case. Whatever happened there must be fascinating, as well as revelatory.

But this case kept me on the edge of my seat. There are so many possible motives for the crime, and Hiro is trapped in the investigation. Not just because Kazu is a comrade, but also because Mateo is attacked during the investigation and is too injured to leave Kyoto. Hiro can’t get out of solving the crime, in the hopes that the answer will provide a respite for the growing political tension.

He’s almost half right.

Unlike so many mysteries, there are actually two plots, and the coincidence does work. Hiro solves what he can, but some things are beyond his ability to solve, as one plot uses the other as cover. It doesn’t feel like two half-baked ideas in search of a story, these two separate strings tie together in a way that makes sense.

We also learn more about Hiro, his abilities and his philosophy, and the relationship between himself and Mateo. Their friendship surprises him, and makes his job more difficult. It also provides Hiro with a vulnerability that shinobi are not supposed to have. Yet, it provides the motivation for his crime solving.

One of the things I’m most looking forward to in the series is their evolving relationship. Mateo is often our viewpoint for how things differ from the Western history and perspective that we are more familiar with. At the same time, he is trying to adapt to the culture around him. We, and Hiro, often can’t tell whether Mateo is using his foreign-ness to ask rude questions, or whether he honestly doesn’t know.

The ending of this story was a surprise, in a good way. While the plots were wrapped up and the motives for the perpetrators revealed, it was the aftermath that stuck in the mind. Not just for its revelations, for also for the way that it went outside the code, yet still remained true to the setting.

This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews.


Susan is giving away a copy of Blade of the Samurai (print or ebook, winner’s choice; U.S. and Canada)! To enter, use the Rafflecopter below.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: Claws of the Cat by Susan Spann

claws of the cat by susan spannFormat read: ebook provided by NetGalley
Formats available: ebook, hardcover
Genre: historical mystery
Series: Shinobi Mystery, #1
Length: 288 pages
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Date Released: July 16, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

May 1564: When a samurai is brutally murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, master ninja Hiro has no desire to get involved. But the beautiful entertainer accused of the crime enlists the help of Father Mateo, the Portuguese Jesuit Hiro is sworn to protect, leaving the master shinobi with just three days to find the killer in order to save the girl and the priest from execution.

The investigation plunges Hiro and Father Mateo into the dangerous waters of Kyoto’s floating world, where they learn that everyone from the elusive teahouse owner to the dead man’s dishonored brother has a motive to keep the samurai’s death a mystery. A rare murder weapon favored by ninja assassins, a female samurai warrior, and a hidden affair leave Hiro with too many suspects and far too little time. Worse, the ninja’s investigation uncovers a host of secrets that threaten not only Father Mateo and the teahouse, but the very future of Japan.

My Review:

This was awesome. Full stop. The setting is unusual and the detectives are surprising and possibly unique. The mystery is intricate and it is marvelous to play along with a mystery that doesn’t (and can’t) rely on modern forensics. It’s all down to human ingenuity and human intelligence.

Also, of course, human greed.

The story takes place in 16th Japan, during the years known as the Warring States period. This was a period when rival clans were attempting, and often succeeding, in capturing the Shogunate by military might as well as subterfuge.

It was also the period when Japan was only open to Westerners on a relatively limited and controlled basis. The Japanese were not certain of the traders, and especially the Catholic missionaries, motives for wanting to be in Japan.

So our protagonists in this mystery are a Catholic priest and missionary, Father Mateo, and his bodyguard Hiro. At first, it seems as if Father Mateo is the leader in this surprising partnership, but in fact, it is Hiro who moves the investigation. While Father Mateo is exactly as he seems, Hiro is very little of who he appears to be, by intention and not accident.

Hiro is a shinobi, what we would call a ninja. He is a master of shadows. But his life is bound to protect Father Mateo, which drags him along when the priest deliberately or accidently puts his foot into it.

Mysteries are often investigated by outsiders, and in this case, we have two; the Catholic priest living both in and outside the strict Japanese culture, and the shinobi, who is always an outsider in his own land, seeking out every enemy and searching for every exit.

The crime seems simple at first. A retired general is murdered in a respectable teahouse, and an entertainer is found by his side, covered in his blood. It’s an open and shut case, until the entertainer asks for Father Mateo. She is a Christian convert and wants the priest to pray for her. Or with her.

But Mateo believes that she is innocent of the crime, and interferes with the general’s son’s right to have revenge on his father’s murderer. The son, being a hot-headed and privileged idiot, makes Father Mateo responsible for finding the real killer, or dying with young woman he defends.

Hiro is forced into the investigation, as he is bound by his own honor to keep Father Mateo alive, even at the cost of his own life. If Mateo is killed, Hiro will be required to die with him.

And so the reader is immersed in the “Floating World” of the Japanese teahouses, the simmering pot of medieval Japanese politics, and the strict code of honor that is Bushido, the way of the warrior.

As Father Mateo blunders through the thickets of a society that he has been on the fringes of and is still trying to understand, Mateo navigates deeper waters, while following the oldest clue of mysteries everywhere, “who benefits?”

The answer will surprise you, but the journey will bring delights and insights in equally marvelous measure.

Escape Rating A: In a surprising way, Claws of the Cat reminded me of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries. As we read, we are steeped in a world that has small shocks of familiarity in the midst of astonishing differences. We think we understand, and then the way the world works surprises us.

There is also the similarity in that Cadfael, like Hiro, has to solve the crime based on his knowledge of the world, his understanding of human nature, but without forensics beyond those observable to the naked eye. The solution is in the intelligence of the detective, and the human failures of the criminals and those around them.

Hiro makes a fascinating detective. His outer appearance is an intentional act, so we discover the bits of himself he chooses to reveal as we walk with him through the story. He, in turn, reveals the world in which he lives, especially as he is an observer no matter where he goes, and does not intend to be a prime mover. In fact, he wants to conceal that he is even capable of being that prime mover. His job is to remain in the shadows.

The plots and counterplots will keep you guessing until the very end. There are political motives, personal motives and purely monetary reasons why this general is dead. The question that Hiro has to answer is which, if any, are the causes for this murder. And whether he can find the answer in time to save Mateo, and himself.

Somewhere, there must be a story about how Mateo and Hiro first meet, and why Hiro is bound to protect Mateo. The hints that Hiro makes regarding his initial contact (and contract) to guard Mateo are quite a tease.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.