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The Incense Game

(Sano Ichiro #16)

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  596 ratings  ·  89 reviews
Winner of RT Magazine's Reviewers' Choice Award for Best Historical Mystery

In the wake of a terrifying earthquake, Sano Ichiro races to solve a crime that could bring down the shogun's regime

When a massive earthquake devastates Japan in 1703, even the shogun's carefully regulated court is left teetering on the brink of chaos. This is no time for a murder investigation exce
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published September 18th 2012 by Minotaur Books (first published 2012)
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Showing 1-49
3.89  · 
Rating details
 ·  596 ratings  ·  89 reviews

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Brooke Banks
I JUST finished this and I'll be back with a full review, but I wanted to add some notes.

TW: Transphobia, Rape, Pedophlia, Suicide,

--At first I was impressed with how0 they kept using someone's preferred pronouns. Then the situation took a nasty turn. It was disturbing how the character's started describing them, how all of a sudden their birth sex was apparent and how they'd been fooled! To make matters worse, they were not transgender by choice but were the villain by choice. So again, in a
Jan 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Beginners beware, this is not the place to start this excellent series; you'll spend too much time wondering who is who, and not enough marveling at Rowland's ability to spin a murder mystery in the middle of a tale about recovery from terrible disasters. The story opens with the murder itself, which takes place just prior to the earthquake of 1703, also vividly described. Rowland deftly juxtaposes the small tragedy against the backdrop of the larger one, as people scramble to recover from the d ...more
D. T.
Feb 08, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
At sixteen books into this series, Rowland still manages to write an intriguing mystery and set it amidst the historical backdrop of the devastating 1703 earthquake. As always, it's a quick, light read with plenty of political machinations and personal perils that keep the pages turning.


My continuing irritation with the series is once again Hirata and the increasingly ridiculous mystical, magical martial arts. It adds so very little to the series and detracts too much from the meticulous
Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk
I'm going to keep this short... What the hell has Rowland done? She's taken an interesting series of detective stories set in Seventeenth/Eighteenth Century Japan, with all its political machinations and feudal undertones... and ruined it! She has introduced an element of... FANTASY! Super-hero ninja-type samurai, evil spirits... Excuse me? I know that the Chinese Asian culture fantasises about their ability to tap into some sort of self-discipline which enables them to become amazing super-warr ...more
Mar 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-2013, favourites, own
Another brilliant historical mystery by Laura Joh Rowland, this newest installment in the Sano Ichiro series is set against the backdrop of the devastating 1703 Edo region earthquake. This has been one of my favourite series for a long time, and this book was IMO one of its best. And of course I'm very glad to see Yanagisawa back in business after the events of the last book - noone does scheming and intriguing quite as delightfully as him. Can't wait to see what the next book will have in store ...more
Kevin Vrieze
Jun 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
One of the best in the series. Very complex. All the characters played significant parts and there were very few loose ends. The mystic thread of the story fit nicely. The return of Yanagisawa had a great twist. Hard to do a story set in the devastation of a major earthquake, but Rowland did very nicely. The part children played in this one was subtle, but very interesting. The relationships of the children to their parents and to the world around them in their various positions was fascinating. ...more
Jun 06, 2017 rated it liked it
3.5 stars would have been a good option.

I think it is very impressive how the writer made her story so believable. You can just imagining it all happening.
I also liked Reiko's charater. To my knowledge she was very realistically portrayed. Her character is that of the not so stereotypical wife, but it wasn't over done. She still only went where a lady would go and left bigger things to her husband. A good character overall.

But yet the story didn't grab me. It didn't blow me away and even though
May 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
I've been off of the Rowland bandwagon of novels for several months mostly because I could not find the books I needed to read in the sequence at the library. My remedy to the problem was to change the library I visited and Voila! I found books. This novel has the same major characters and villains with a few more added into the mix. Although Sano -san is high ranking, he cannot get away from his investigation responsibilities. A couple of interesting twists at the end.
Nancy Cook  Lauer
Aug 19, 2017 rated it liked it
An enjoyable little mystery set in feudal Japan. Well plotted, thoroughly researched with a lot of interesting detail about social mores of the time. The writing style is very simplistic, almost as if it were translated from another language, although there is no indication that is true.
Jul 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
Going into this book I was not aware of the others that came before. So much past history that was mentioned as a reference. I loved the murder mystery aspect of this story which had a most satisfactory conclusion. Not sure what to make of the mystical and ghost side of the story.
May 28, 2018 rated it liked it
heavy on the politics and somewhat flat in tone, but has a nice surprising twist.
Jessica L Seay
Dec 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great read

Had me up all night at times wanting to see what happened next! I couldn't put it down! Loved it!
Norish Azman
Jun 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
plot twist was so unexpected
Deanna Drai Turner
Mar 19, 2013 rated it liked it
About 5 chapters in, I was fidgeting in my chair and sweat was beading on my upper lip. I thought, oh dear, this is a book about Feudal Japan. I don't really enjoy books on Feudal Japan. Then I looked at the cover again and saw the tagline below the title "A novel of feudal Japan." Ooops. I had been so drawn in by the lovely woman on the cover and the title "The Incense Game" that I failed to really pay attention. I wanted, after all, to know what the heck the incense game was. As it turns out, ...more
Pmalcpoet Pat Malcolm
Apr 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The Incense Game takes place in feudal Japan, and is the sixteenth in a series featuring able detective Sano Ichiro. We have witnessed the changing events and allegiances which have allowed Sano to rise to his current position as Honorable Chamberlain, second in command only to the shogun himself, dictator and ruler of all Japan. This story takes place in 1703, in the aftermath of an earthquake which has devastated Edo, the capital, and the surrounding countryside. Much of the city has been flat ...more
Mekdelawit Yitayih
Oct 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
Historical Fiction/Mystery & Detective
An earthquake hits Edo(present day Tokyo) in Dec. 31, 1703. This unexpected earthquake ruined the castle and the homes of the people. Many people lost their families and friends which left them devastated. Sano Ichiro, the protagonist of this book, escaped the earthquake with his wife and two kids before the house collapsed on them. Sano is an honorable and brave samurai who loves his wife and kids and deeply cares about his country. He was forced to in
Amy Lignor
Oct 31, 2012 rated it liked it
Readers may be surprised to learn that this interesting title is actually book #16 in this author’s series featuring Sano Ichiro, who is now the Honorable Chamberlain, not to mention the Shogun’s second in command. (Let’s face it, when you’ve written sixteen novels about a character, you know that it’s one of the ‘best-of-the-best’ in literature).

The year is 1703 in Edo (Tokyo), Japan. Sano is about to look for the truth behind a suspicious suicide that was made to look like an ‘Incense Game,’ (
Nov 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
• I find that I need to “like” the characters in a mystery series and Sana Ichiro and his wife Lady Reiko are very engaging and intriguing characters, so the books are more enjoyable to me.
• This is more than a mystery but a very good period literature – the combination of the mystery with real events – in this case the devastating earthquake of 1703 – with the description of the Japanese feudal society is interesting and informative.
• Enjoyed how I learned about the culture/history without it s
Dec 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
AMAZING!! The graceful and passionate story telling of Rowland has kept me coming back lo her 15+ Sano Ichiro stories. The Incense Game - took me a long time- but was worthy it!! The earthquake in Edo - would have been an historical fact - however, after experiencing an earthquake on the east coast I have a new appreciation for technology and the modern age. The carnage that people experienced and the fallout and clean-up must have been tremendously involved and timely. Sano and his ilk - the in ...more
Jan 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is a mystery about feudal Japan starting out when 3 women are playing an incense game where insence is burned and the particpants try to decide what the componets are. In this case one of the components happens to be arsenic and all three women die. At first thier deaths are blamed on a massive earthquake that hits the region, killing thousands and demolishing cities and villages. Two of the women are daughters of a powerful nobleman and he wants Sano Ichiro, Honorable Chamberlain, second i ...more
Jun 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I love this series, which is very well-researched and includes well-developed characters. This book continues the saga of Chamberlain Sano and Lady Reiko, set in the Tokugawa era of historical Japan just after the huge earthquake in the 1700s that destroyed Edo and so much of the countryside. Sano must discover the perpetrator of a triple murder by poisoned incense - as well as carry out his responsibilities to clean up the destruction left by the earthquake. Of course the shogun doesn't really ...more
Jul 31, 2014 rated it it was ok
Two noblewomen are buried in a house after an earthquake that destroys most of Edo and the surrounding countryside in 1703. Although thousands have died, Sano Ichiro is called upon to investigate these deaths because the women were poisoned by deadly incense fumes rather than the collapse of the building in which they were participating in the game of identifying the various components and fragrances of the incense. As usual, if Sano is not able to solve the murders both he and his entire family ...more
Monica Williams
Sep 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Yet another brilliant entry in the Sano detective series. I don't know Rowland has kept this up all this time, but she maintains a near perfect balance between smart mysteries and the interesting setting of Feudal Japan with its cultural and political intricacies. This time an earthquake has hit and nearly destroyed the country, both physically as well as politically. Money is short and the Shogun is precariously positioned and totally unprepared and unable to cope with what has happened. During ...more
Sep 24, 2012 rated it really liked it
In 1703, a terrible earthquake hit Japan, destroying Edo and a vast part of the country. The ensuing tsunami swept away much of coastline away as well. Sano Ichiro, the shogun's chamberlain, is working hard to help the devastated country recover, but it's hard when the great dictator does not understand why nothing is the same and his life has been turned upside down; the Tokugawa reign is under attack. Then Sano finds three bodies buried in the rubble, none of whom died from the earthquake. Who ...more
Apr 03, 2013 rated it did not like it
I ordered this book due to a recommendation of new mysteries either on Oprah or B&N. What a disappointment. after putting my rating on Goodreads, I saw the book was #16 in a series on the detective Sano. I will not be reading the 15 before this or the 17th. one of my difficulties with this book was that the descriptions of the destruction from the earthquake was repeated over and over from different characters. The characters may have been different but the descriptions were eerily the same. ...more
This felt like a much stronger entry into a series with which my interesting is waning, and the tumult following a massive earthquake in Edo made for an interesting setting. Things felt less "comfortable" and steady than normal for Sano, as between the earthquake and the ensuing fires even he's thrown off by how different his city is.

There were some unexpected twists in here, and overall I really enjoyed the way this panned out and the mystery itself. Unfortunately, the writing still feels weake
Mar 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Laura Joh Rowland has done it again!

This 16th entry into the Sano Ichiro series is as exciting as the rest of them.

I left off in the series at "The Fire Kimono" and was worried to start this one because it is two novels later. However, I forget that the author hardly requires readers to start at the beginning in order to catch up.

There's only one or two minor spoilers based on the previous novels mentioned here but it's not really revealing.

A) Using the real-life 1703 Edo (Tokyo) earthquak
Kathy Motley
May 20, 2013 rated it liked it
I dearly love to read books in a long-standing series and I always expect to be entertained and to catch up with the beloved characters in those series but I felt a little let down by this entry in the Sano Ichiro saga. It wasn't that this was a bad story; in fact the backdrop of the great earthquake of 1703 was fantastic. I just felt like there was something missing. I guess it was the intense rivalry of Sano and Yanigisawa I missed. I also didn't enjoy the side story of Hirata and his mysterio ...more
Anne Slater
Jun 08, 2013 rated it really liked it
If you like historical fiction that engages AND enlightens you, I heartily commend Laura Joh Rowland's series set in feudal Japan (late 1600s -> early 1700s).

I just finished The Incense Game which held me captive most of today (I'm a fast reader and have no oen to demand my attention). I do recommend that you begin with the first book in the series,Shinju, and get to know samurai Sano Ichiro and his(ultimately) wife Reiko... that he marries her is as much as I'll give away.

The plot does get p
Clay Stafford
“Here’s my numerical review: 16-15-1. It’s a lottery number you’ll win by. Sixteenth Century mystery. Treacherous politics. History. Culture. An earthquake bringing the city down upon them. Number 15 in Rowland’s Sano Ichiro mystery franchise. One of the best and most realistic historical mystery novels I’ve ever read, educating me in a world I knew nothing about. If you’ve never read a historical mystery, this is the one you should read.”

The Incense Game on Killer Nashville
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Joe Slavinsky
Jan 16, 2016 rated it liked it
This being the 16th book in the series, you can expect some predictability, as it's obviously difficult to make each book fresh, and new. Virtually every book has a plot based on Sano being extorted to do something, under the pain of death, to him and/or his family. The refreshing part of this book, is that the story is set against the backdrop of the massive earthquake that struck Edo, in 1703. There is some further development of the characters, as this book has Sano at age 46, yet still vital ...more
Margaret Sankey
Jan 09, 2013 rated it liked it
Samurai Chamberlain Sano and his family cope with the aftermath of the 1703 Edo earthquake and the ineffectual rule of Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi while investigating the death of three women found in the rubble, but clearly poisoned before the walls collapsed. If this death isn't solved and revenged, a powerful noble will throw his weight behind a plot that could easily lead to civil war. Rowland is another historical novelist who accepts the ugly and constraining values of the time she's chosen ...more
Dec 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
#16 in the Sano Ichiro Fedual Japan mystery series set in December 1703 into 1704. A massive earth quake causes considerable damage in Edo as well as other portions of Japan. Sano, the Shogun's Chamberlain, is responsible for overseeing the clean up and rebuilding. In the middle of this, a murder is discovered and Sano is pushed into investigating it by an important nobleman. There are the usual subplot lines regarding Sano's relationship with his main retainer and what is happening with him and ...more
Dec 19, 2012 added it
Shelves: own
There has been a major earthquake and Sano is to lead the cleanup and reconstruction of Edo by order of the Shogun. Complicating his task is his discovery of the murder of 3 women who died while playing an incense game. Two women are sisters and daughters of a diamyo who is involved in a plot to overthrow the Shogun. The diamyo tells Sano that if Sano solves the crime then he will not support the revolt and supply the Shogun with funds for rebuilding after the earthquake. Sano has to solve the c ...more
Jun 09, 2014 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book, it was the first one by Rowland that I have read. I see that some followers are disheartened by the addition of fantasy to the story and characters, but I loved it. Having studied the martial arts for over four years during grad school, and having watched just about every famous martial arts movie out there, I have to say that the fantasy part is the most fun and intriguing part. Fantasy can blend mind over matter in a fascinating way, and the several scenes that used ...more
Danielle Peterson
Oct 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I love everything this woman puts out. Each year I look forward to the newest installment in this series and I haven't been disappointed yet. She blends two of my favorite things-scandal and history-and her style, while at times a bit predictable in plot structure (but hey, that's a detective story for you) always leaves me eagerly awaiting next years release. Her research is obvious and I apprciate that in a novel. I cannot say enough good things about Laura Joh Rowland.
Serge Pierro
May 14, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
Another interesting offering by Laura Joh Rowland, in her Sano Ichiro series. Once again, Sano and his wife Reiko are thrust into solving a mystery - this time in the aftermath of a large earthquake that devastates Japan. Several interesting subplots are developed throughout - with the storyline of Hirata starting to grow in the amount of pages dedicated to it. It might be time to do a spin off with Hirata and really develop the mystical elements outside of the Ichiro series.
Don Johnson
Oct 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
If you have read the other mystery novels by Laura Joh Rowland about Feudal Japan and liked them, you will like this mystery. In fact, it is one of her better mysteries. Personally, I think it could have done without the "mystical" part of story line, which is a very minor element of the novel, because the rest of the narrative can stand on it's own and simply doesn't need it.

I will look forward to her next novel in the series.
Oct 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: mysteries
I found this book better than the last few books in the series. Mixing in real life events with the fictional stories makes it more interesting. After the great earthquake of Japan occurs, all of the country is in turmoil. Three murdered boides are found that happened right before the earthquake with two of the women being daughters of a feudl lord. Sano is asked to solvethese murders or risk an overthrow of the current government but he is supposed to be in charge of the re-building and doesn't ...more
Jan 04, 2017 rated it liked it
Initially I thought I had made another blunder. This murder mystery set in feudal Japan was the 16th installment in a detective series & I had not read any of the previous books! However, the book was interesting enough despite this. The narrative of a weakened Japan post earthquake under a weak shogun was intriguing. The actual investigation of the murders & its conclusions were also satisfactory although somewhat predictable. A good read nonetheless.
Oct 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
Another exciting mystery set in Feudal Japan. This story takes place in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that destroyed most of Edo and the coastal cities. The earthquake was a real event in Japan's history, so the story based on it has lots of detail of what happened during that time. I look forward to additional stories about that time period in Japan from the author.
Neil Plakcy
Mar 17, 2013 rated it liked it
I've really enjoyed this series in the past, but I think I might have missed a book or two before this one. I don't like the subplot with Hirata and the magical mystical guys -- for me, it detracts from the realism I've liked in previous books. Also didn't care much for the ending, which seemed very forced and unrealistic. A shame!
Kiwi Carlisle
Feb 21, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I would have given this stirring mystery five stars save for an annoying subplot. The portrayal of restless, earthquake torn Edo is outstanding. However, I just can't suspend disbelief for the mystic martial arts plot. It's gotten so bad that I roll my eyes whenever Sano's aide, Hirata, comes on the scene.
Jun 23, 2013 rated it liked it
Maybe three and a half stars. I like this series, but it's the kind where I pick up the latest if I happen to see it. I didn't start it at the beginning, either, and haven't felt compelled to go back and fill in. Still, I find the characters interesting and the historical setting, too.
May 04, 2013 rated it liked it
This is the first of the series I read and although Rowland alludes to the characters' histories, it was still an enjoyable book. The main character and family have modern ideas that don't fit into Japan's feudal society which makes them likable but not very realistic to me.
Bill Lively
Jun 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The 16th novel in Rowland's series set in medieval Japan. Tough society to have lived in and survived.

As others have said, do not begin reading this series with this book. Go back and begin with book #1 and enjoy the books as Sano's career spins from crisis to crisis.
May 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
My first Laura Joh Rowland novel, it won't be my last. A very intricate thriller/mystery set in Feudal Japan, I found my self enthralled by the characters set against the backdrop of earthquake ravaged Edo. I heartlily recommend this book to historical thriller lovers.
H Gibson
Jan 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
I know there are only two more books in this amazing series, and as much as I'd rather Ms. Rowland end on a high, I still hate to see it come to an end. I'll miss the characters as if I'm leaving great friends. Every book in the series is a worthy read.
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Granddaughter of Chinese and Korean immigrants, Laura Joh Rowland grew up in Michigan and where she graduated with a B.S. in microbiology and a Master of Public Health at the University of Michigan. She currently lives in New Orleans with her husband. She has worked as a chemist, microbiologist, sanitary inspector and quality engineer.

Other books in the series

Sano Ichiro (1 - 10 of 18 books)
  • Shinju (Sano Ichiro, #1)
  • Bundori (Sano Ichiro, #2)
  • The Way of the Traitor  (Sano Ichiro, #3)
  • The Concubine's Tattoo (Sano Ichiro, #4)
  • The Samurai's Wife (Sano Ichiro, #5)
  • Black Lotus (Sano Ichiro, #6)
  • The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria (Sano Ichiro, #7)
  • The Dragon King's Palace (Sano Ichiro, #8)
  • The Perfumed Sleeve (Sano Ichiro, #9)
  • The Assassin's Touch (Sano Ichiro, #10)