Toshiro Itou is an ambitious young man in 19th Century California. His mother sent him to a father he never knew so that she could pursue her own ambitions with her powerful lover. Bitter and rebellious, when he chances to meet the top ranking tong assassin Dao Kan Shu he yearns to have the power and fear the older man inspires for himself. Seduced by Toshiro's beauty, ruthlessness and ability to withstand pain, Shu takes him on as his apprentice.
Meanwhile Toshiro's mother, Ume, has an unpleasant surprise when her lover sends her to the Tong elders in repayment of a debt. Her efforts to keep herself out of the whore-house lead to her becoming an assassin herself, under the control of crime-lord Ren Yang. Yang has fallen in love with her, but her only concerns are firstly survival, and secondly to free her son from the abusive relationship she believes he has with the sadistic Shu. The fact that he has no desire to be freed, or that the effort will bring them all into lethal disfavor with the tong elders, is not something she is prepared to think about.
I must say that I loved the setting of this. The contrast of the Ages old Chinatown culture with the Wild West setting is a joy to behold. I'm only sorry that that culture clash was not exploited at all. In fact the book could as easily have been set in China itself. Equally I didn't feel that Toshiro or Ume's Japanese culture was a strong enough element in their personalities or the plot for it to be necessary that they should be Japanese rather than Chinese.
However, having said that, this was still a great change of setting and an interesting culture to explore. There's no getting away from the fact that we're talking about a crime empire either. The book is heavy on violence, bad language and sexual threat. Ume's thread, indeed, is constant, wearing, sexual threat all the time until by the end you react to the threat of rape with `oh not again!' It is a dark book. Dao Kan Shu and Toshiro bond over their shared enjoyment of killing people in nasty ways. Ume's motherly love expresses itself in an attempt to get her son's lover murdered, and she herself can be very inventive with a hair-pin.
When the book began I very much enjoyed the verve of the writing, the wonderful detail and description, and the high quality characterization and plotting. I also enjoyed Shu and Toshiro's gleeful rampage and mutual sadism. They aren't a cute couple by any means, but I could quite easily believe in their sick and twisted love. By the end of the first third, however, I was yearning for a change of tone - the unrelieved darkness became a little wearing. I'd have liked to see a variation in tone now and again. Instead we got another third in which Ume was thrust into a succession of humiliating experiences and sexual perils. I didn't enjoy this very much.
The third united the two plots by bringing Toshiro's thread and Ume's together. This third was exciting, ever so slightly less humiliating for the female character, breathlessly paced and had an emotional weight that the other two was missing (I thought.) Shu had clearly fallen for Toshiro and was paranoid that Ume was trying to take him away, Ume was terrified for her son. We suddenly had emotions that could be almost considered admirable. Unfortunately this third was marred by wild point of view shifts, which made it difficult to tell which character was thinking what at what time. The editing was also fairly poor - at one point the point of view even slipped into first person.
All of this dampened my enjoyment a little. I must say that the characters are so violent, so selfish, self centered, sadistic and so generally amoral that by the end of the book I was rather tempted just to get a machine gun and solve their problems once and for all in a hail of bullets.
But having said all of this the delightful complexity, the fascinating setting, the very hot sex and strangely sympathetic relation
Silk & Poison weaves the dark and seductive tales of Ume and Toshiro Itou, a Japanese mother and son who find themselves lured into the dangerous world of rival Chinese Tongs in 19th century California.
Toshiro Itou is seduced into a world of dark passions and violent desires when he becomes apprentice to Dao Kan Shu, a fierce assassin in San Francisco's Chinatown. Lessons are taught in blood, but the rewards surpass the most sensual of fantasies ... for both men. As the line between student and teacher is blurred, the Poisoned Dragon himself discovers that seduction works two ways.
A top ranking man in San Francisco's Chinese underworld, Ren Yang knew better than to mix business with pleasure. But when a Japanese debtor repaid the feared crime lord with his lovely wife, Ren discovers that Ume Itou, "The Tokyo Plum" is an addiction stronger than the opium sold on his streets. Caught between the underworld's ruthless hierarchy and the unexpected desires of their hearts, they must endure tests neither anticipated.
Homoerotic content, knife play, drug use, strong language, graphic violence and situations some readers may find disturbing.