White Serpent Castle

Sorry — couldn’t find a good image without the “look inside” thingee!

White Serpent Castle
by Lensey Namioka

Zenta and Matsuzo, wandering ronin in search of work, come to White Serpent Castle, hoping to hire on with the feudal warlord.

Except he’s dead.

As they arrive, the chamberlain is trying to force marriage on the warlord’s daughter so he can assume control of the castle. The warlord’s son by his second wife is only nine and not yet able to rule. And his son by his first marriage was exiled a decade ago, but rumors say he’s returning to claim the castle as his own. The daimyo has sent his envoy to proclaim a successor, but even his life is threatened by the treachery afoot.

The chamberlain thinks Zenta is the returned older son. Both the second wife and eldest daughter believe Zenta could be the key to their claiming the castle. And the envoy has designs of his own.

Can Zenta and Matsuzo navigate these treacherous waters and escape the castle? And if they fail, will civil war descend on the province?

When I read the previous novel in this series, The Samurai and the Long-Nosed Devils, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the book. While I enjoyed it, I couldn’t place the intended audience.

While this book suffers a similar problem, the story is so much tighter and the characters so much more clearly defined, I didn’t care. This novel is awesome.

I’m happy to report that this series seems like Hardy Boys or Three Investigators – while there is some small modicum of character growth, you really don’t have to read the previous volume to get this one. All the characters are re-introduced quickly and unobtrusively. No plot elements linger from the previous book, though a certain slight hanging thread is picked up and furthered.

White Serpent Castle ups the action quotient from the last book, too, starting with a great fight scene. Rather than living under the threat of violence and then having a sudden flurry of action at the end (which is what happened in The Samurai and the Long-Nosed Devils), this book spreads out the action in a much more even way. We also get to see Namioka’s fun description of samurai duels.

We also have some great uses of humor here as Zenta in particular reveals a biting mockery of his opponents. Though the book is copyrighted in 1976, the humor felt much more like Joss Whedon than anything.

I’m still not sure who the book is intended for. The trade dress and length makes it look like a younger teen novel, but the content maturity and complexity make it feel much more fit for adult or older teen. Maybe that’s more an effect of sales than authorial intent, though. If the book was repackaged under a different cover, it would more accurately convey the interior. Or, again, maybe the book does work for early teens in 1976!

The story structure proved unique. Most novels have the normal “inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action.” And usually nearly every plot thread feeds into that climax.

Here, though, Namioka weaves several varied climaxes for many different plot threads. And rather than making the book feel diluted or spread out or drag on, the format worked here. I delighted as each thread resolved, setting up the resolution of the next. Such a progression certainly wouldn’t work for every story, but it worked well here.

I also love the touch of the supernatural here. Of course the ancient castle is haunted. Of course the ghost only comes when the castle faces a crisis. And of course it’s an eerie addition to an already fairly complex story.

While The Samurai and the Long-Nosed Devils was a pleasant first outing, don’t bother reading that unless, like me, you’re a little OCD when it comes to reading series in the exact order. Skip to White Serpent Castle. Everything here is better, and you don’t have to worry about continuity. If you’d like to sample some great mystery set in feudal Japan, check this out. It is well, well worth your time. (And besides that, it really is a quick read!

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