Sunday, July 31, 2011

“Blood Ninja”, by Nick Lake (Corvus)


Feudal Japan. Ninjas. Vampires. Cool.

Japan, 1565. Taro has been brought up as a fisherman’s son. He will become a ninja, a silent assassin trained in the arts of death.

He will face samurai, warriors as sharply honed as the blade at their side. He will battle warlords for the title of Shogun.

But he will live in darkness, for no Blood Ninja can face the light of day.

Blood Ninja is an original take on the vampire mythology, in a setting that is all-too overlooked in Western fiction, and with a pretty awesome premise. The novel is not perfect, but the strength of the premise and the different setting make is an intriguing and entertaining read, and a great vampire novel for younger readers.

Taro is an unusual boy from a coastal fishing village in Japan. Destined to become a fisherman, he nevertheless spends most of his day dreaming of becoming a heroic samurai and fighting for honour and duty. With his friend, Hiro, he whiles away his days in the village, disappointed yet resigned to his inevitable, boring and lowly fate. His life is turned upside down, however, one fateful night when, returning late home, he stumbles across an inexplicable assassination attempt on his entire family. His sick father is murdered by a ninja, but before he and his mother are also killed, another ninja saves their lives. Taro’s mother is sent into hiding, and Taro’s saviour takes him away. Before they escape, Taro is mortally wounded and his saviour makes the fateful choice of turning him into a vampire.

In Lake’s Japan, all ninja are vampires. This, I must say, is a very interesting and original take on ninjas, the illegal cult of assassins from ancient Japan. Shusaku, Taro’s saviour, is pretty matter-of-fact about why this is the case:

“Vampires are faster than ordinary men, stronger and more agile. And have you ever heard of a ninja doing his work by day? Never. They operate only by night - silent, stealthy, deadly. It makes perfect sense that ninjas should be vampires.”

I’m inclined to accept Shusaku’s logic on this one.

Over the course of the novel we meet plenty of interesting and memorable characters, and Taro’s life becomes far more exciting than he could ever have hoped for: on his journey of revenge, he must evade warring Lords, discover why his family was targeted in the first place, unravel an ancient mystery and curse, and resist the forbidden love with a princess way above his station. These are all pretty standard fantasy-adventure story points, but Lake approaches them all with care and in interesting and entertaining ways, and they mesh well to form quite a solid story.

The dialogue in Blood Ninja is mostly good, but not always as realistic or fluid as I would like. The exposition in the earlier parts of the novel is sometimes a little clunky, which can perhaps be put down to Lake’s desire to get the reader more familiar with the Japanese setting as quickly as possible (things become more streamlined quite quickly). As we come to know the characters, though, any issues with the dialogue or pacing will fade away, as the story and premise are pretty interesting, and there’s plenty to keep us distracted and engaged throughout.

There is one thing I took issue with in Blood Ninja: the age-old concern for show-not-tell, in that I think the novel has an unfortunate tendency toward telling. For example, after Shusaku takes Taro under his wing, our young protagonist must learn to let go of his fondness for seeing things like the samurai tales he grew up on – life is not black or white, but often varying shades of grey. While it would have been nice to see this realisation developing over the course of the novel, instead Shusaku tells Taro outright when they are running from the first attack that brought them together. This is not the only instance when a random bit of telling gets thrown into the dialogue or narration, and it did get to me a little. The premise is still strong, but I found the execution flawed because of this problem.

Blood Ninja ticks a few boxes of what might be considered “tropes” of vampire fiction – the transformation, the education, the training, vengeance, and so forth. These are mostly well done, and I didn’t really have any complaints (although, the transformation itself did seem rather easy and mundane). The first vampire novels I read were Anne Rice’s, which set such a high bar, in my opinion, that most (if not all) other vampire fiction tends to feel a tad inferior.

Lake’s book benefits from the Oriental setting and history, which are both portrayed brilliantly, and certainly makes the novel stand out even before you’ve read a single page. The author has also included and developed some interesting, innovative approaches to vampire mythology (tattoos that conceal from the eyes of the undead, for example, which I thought was an awesome idea), which helps keep the novel fresh and original.

Overall, this is an interesting story, with some original ideas and developments, and a refreshingly keen eye for Japanese history and customs. The premise is great. This novel certainly has a lot to recommend it. For me, however, it didn’t quite do the trick due to the aforementioned issues. I do think it’s perfect for younger readers, though, and I will still be reading the second book, Lord Oda’s Revenge, as soon as I get a free moment.

A cautious recommendation, then.

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