Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Flask of the Drunken Master by Susan Spann

Normally, I wouldn't read any book with the word "drunken" in the title because characters who are drunks don't interest me.  Yet I felt that I learned things that I hadn't known about 16th century Japan when I read Claws of the Cat, the first book in the Shinobi mystery series by Susan Spann.  The series features Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit, and Hiro, the shinobi who is protecting him.  Shinobi is the way that Japanese really pronounce the word which is otherwise known as ninja.  Ninja is the Chinese pronunciation of the word.  That's one of the things that I learned from Claws of the Cat.  I hoped to learn more from  Flask of the Drunken Master which is the third book in the series.



Over the course of this series I'm getting to know the characters.  Since I'm not a Catholic, I hadn't expected Father Mateo to be so sympathetic.  In this book he voices opinions that are dangerous in Japan.  Yet it occurs to me that they would be just as dangerous in Europe of this period if they were truly taken seriously.  Portuguese nobility would not be that different from samurai in wanting to curb any expression of opinions that would threaten their power.

 Another character that I was glad to get to know better was Akechi Yoshiko whose father was murdered in Claws of the Cat.   Yoshiko, who dresses as a male samurai, is now making her way in the world by hiring herself out as a debt collector.  Since the novel is mainly from Hiro's perspective, and he dislikes Yoshiko, it's difficult to get to the truth about this character.   Is she a woman of integrity or is she a conniving woman without principle?  Is Hiro's concept of Yoshiko distorted?  It's interesting, but not unexpected that her clients tend to be women.  Most men don't take Yoshiko seriously.  Yoshiko's life must be difficult.  She would need to have a thick skin and a great deal of persistence to be successful in the career she has chosen.  I actually admired Yoshiko.  There were other strong women in this novel--most notably the victim's devout Buddhist wife, Mina and Tomiko, the daughter of the man who was accused of killing the victim.

I was noticing Hiro's limitations in this book.   I was bothered by the fact that he doesn't understand a basic Buddhist concept.  You'd think that he would have been exposed to it previously given the prevalence of Buddhism and Buddhist ideas in Japanese culture.  I realize that Hiro isn't a Buddhist himself, and that he has issues with religious beliefs in general.   Yet I thought he would be more familiar with Buddhist doctrines.

I also found Hiro's approach to teaching Father Mateo self-defense somewhat problematic, but I suspect that this is an indication that Spann has little knowledge of how the martial arts are taught.   Hiro is described as beginning with basic katas.  Actually, someone like Father Mateo, who has no experience at all with any martial arts would need to begin with breathing.  Then he would need to be taught the proper stance.  Only then could he start with katas.  Ideally, each kata would be taught individually and mastered before the student moves on to the next one in the sequence.

My biggest issue with Hiro in Flask of the Drunken Master is that I think that he got out of hand and committed an act of completely unnecessary violence.  The situation could have been handled differently.  It seems to me that Hiro's judgment isn't always reliable and he has a tendency to cover up his mistakes.  Of course he doesn't want to lose face in the eyes of those whose respect he needs to maintain, but I wish he were more introspective so that he could learn from his errors.  I acknowledge that Hiro is still young.  He will hopefully mature over the course of this series. 

This was not as enlightening as Claws of the Cat.  I also have to say that there were parts of Flask of the Drunken Master that I enjoyed more than others, but I thank the publisher for allowing me access to this book in advance of publication through Net Galley.


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