I bought a copy of this book when it first came out in 2015, Laurie R. King being one of the authors whose books I usually buy in hardback (on publication day, if possible). But when I sat down to read it, I found it hard going. Less than half-way through I put it down, never picked it up again, and eventually, during one of my culls, passed it along to the library sale. This time, I sailed through it, and it has already become one of my favorites in the series.
There are three sections to the story. It opens in England in March of 1925. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes have just returned to their Sussex home after their adventures in Portugal (Pirate King) and North Africa (Garment of Shadows). They discover that a familiar-looking Japanese rock sculpture has been placed in their garden. Then when Russell returns to her own house in Oxford, she finds a young Japanese woman, bleeding in her kitchen.
The story then shifts back a year. Russell and Holmes are preparing to sail from Bombay (after the events of The Game), en route eventually to San Francisco (where the action of Locked Rooms takes place). Boarding the ship at the last moment is the Earl of Darley, with his recent bride (a second wife) and his son. Holmes believes the earl to be a blackmailer and suspects he may have a victim on the ship or in one of the ports they will visit. A young Japanese woman slips aboard the ship in the Darleys' wake. Russell, who later meets her on deck, learns that she is Haruki Sato, returning to Japan after studies in the United States. Miss Sato agrees to tutor Holmes and Russell in Japanese, and she ends up giving a series of lectures on different aspects of Japanese life to the other passengers.
[It was at this point in my first read that I lost interest. I remember that the voyage seemed to be taking forever, days of sailing with lectures and lessons and nothing much else. I had a very different reaction this time, so perhaps I was just having a bad reading day or two back then.]
On their arrival in Japan, Russell and Holmes are offered a commission, to retrieve a particular item, the loss of which would have the gravest political implications. Before they are accepted as consultants, however, they are put to the test: first, to make their way across Japan not as wealthy visitors, but using their skills and as much of the language as they were able to acquire. This was my favorite part of the book, watching them work out ways and means, ingenious as always, but also seeing Japan through their eyes - their open, curious, and accepting eyes.
I won't say too much about their work in Japan, to avoid spoilers, nor about its sequel in Oxford, except that it involves the Bodleian Library. I half-expected Mary to come across Harriet Vane, settled in the reading room, but then Gaudy Night is set a few years later.
I really enjoyed this book. I still have the next, The Murder of Mary Russell, on the TBR shelves, and then a new Russell and Holmes coming out later this year.