When I first started reading this book, I wasn’t sold on it. I first heard about it through the SFBPO, and knew it was supposed to be pretty good. However, as I started reading, I thought this was just another adventure fantasy.
However, I was proven wrong very rapidly. This book is good, and at moments excellent. This book felt like a mix of an old school wire-fu movie mixed with ‘X-Men’ and ‘Seven Samurai’- powerful warriors with supernatural abilities battling it out to protect the innocent (or oppress the innocent, in the case of the baddies). If that sounds intriguing to you, I think you should read this book.
Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing and editing skills.
WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?
- Wuxia (Martial artists who use chi-magic to fight for justice)
- Adults, but anyone 13+ could read this.
- People in the mood for a murder-hobo romp
- (Murder hobo definition: wandering adventurers who travel around the countryside killing things and doing quest-stuff)
- Spooky shinigami/Asian death god/Yokai goodness
READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR
I truly enjoyed this book. I personally felt it had something of a slow start, and had a couple hiccups throughout when the pacing lurched and reset. However, net total, I felt the author did an admirable job of telling an entertaining story of lone swordsmen, ghosts, ghouls and revenge.
This is adventure fiction. Ordinarily I think adventure fiction is big-dumb-fun. I enjoy reading it, but it’s popcorn to me- lots of volume with little nutrition. I give that sort of thing either 2 or 3 stars.
However this book’s twist ending transforms that big-dumb-fun/popcorn fiction-ness to being something heavier and more memorable. That’s why I give this…
Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (3.5/5 Stars)
(I default to giving good books 3 stars. That means this book is solidly above average.)
To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.
I am decently in this book’s target audience. I like spooky pan-Asian yokai goodness (I like the Nioh games, and this reminded me of that), and the wuxia skin on the story was fun. As a result, I enjoyed this book more than someone who does not. That’s why I gave it 4 stars instead of my usual 3- I have a bias in favor of this novel.
- Classic murder-hobo tales
- Kings of the Wyld
- Asian adventure novels
- Bridge of Birds
- Cultivation-ish (using Chi to fight)
- I got Cradle vibes
CONCEPT AND EXECUTION
Concept: A little boy is brought back to life by a god of death, and tasked with the assassination of (Not) China. To help in this impossible tasked, he is gifted the power of resurrection. He must go around reviving the supernatural heroes to aid in his quest. And if those heroes are still alive at the time of the little boy’s arrival, well, he’ll just have to kill them first…
Execution: This was well executed upon. The biggest ‘flaw’ I felt was that this book dragged on a bit too long. I felt that the adventure party was just a bit too large- the Master of Wushu character was the final adventurer added to the party, and adding him was just a bit too much. Similarly, I enjoyed the random yokai attacks… however there was just one or two too many of those battles. This book could have been 40 pages shorter, and I would have given this 5 stars instead of 4.
CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:
The characters in this felt very trope-y: the lone samurai woman was honorbound to the point of fault; the loveable bandit was as self-serving as you’d expect of such a man; the bombastic brawler was as bombastic as I like to read. These tropes were well written. If you like your classic fantasy tropes played straight, they are done well here. I will add a complement to the author; he did a good job of bringing life to the old tropes. I personally DO NOT like trope-y characters, however in this case the author won around my jaded heart. These adventurers were fun.
I will add that I enjoyed the character arcs the bandit, the samurai and the rifleman leper had. They twisted the tropes in unexpected directions just enough to make me smile and at moments laugh.
PACING AND STRUCTURE
This book’s structure is episodic in nature- namely, the book consists of multiple episodic plot-arcs like a season of a tv show.
- Episode one is all about the death and resurrection of the samurai.
- Episode two is about the resurrection of the bandit.
- Three is about the memorable Iron Gut Chen, the drunken indestructible brawler.
- Four introduces the leper rifleman, who joins the quest of his own free will- unlike all the other heroes.
- Five is a yokai attack in the forest
- Six introduces the Master of wushu
- Seven is another Yokai attack
- Eight is a meeting with a harmless yokai spirit.
- Nine is a bandit attack
- Ten is teaming up with an army on the same quest to kill the emperor
- Episode eleven is another yokai attack
- Twelve is the assault on the Emperor’s palace.
- Episode 13 is the Reveal, which re-contextualizes the entire story.
I enjoyed this structure. It felt like the episodes of a tvshow, or like brief adventures of a D&D/Pathfinder questing party. If I were to quibble about the pacing, like I said above I feel that some of the yokai attacks and the addition of the Master of wushu could have been trimmed out from the middle of the novel and removed entirely, just to tighten things up. This would have been better as a ten or eleven episode season instead of a thirteen episode season.
PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION
I enjoyed the plot. At it’s core, this is a revenge tale: a little boy is revived by the god of death, and sent to go kill the emperor who killed him. I must once again complement the author, for the twist ending of the book was both expected and unexpected. I was able to guess at some of the twists, but not all of them. I love it when an author is able to pull a fast one on me vis-a-vis the ending, but does it in a way which seems fair. By ‘fair,’ I mean that I could have seen the twist coming if I was just a bit smarter. Think of this like a stage magician’s hand tricks: they do something flamboyant with one hand to distract you from what the other hand is doing. This story seems like a ‘fair’ twist ending.
This book had 6 main protagonists. I was moderately surprised that all of the protagonists had at least a little bit of a character plotline. The samurai was obsessed with her failures, and desired to redeem herself. The unheroic bandit was shoehorned into being a hero in a funny-yet-fitting way. Iron Gut Chen got to live his best life. The leper rifleman had an OMG reveal at the end. And the Wushu master had to learn to set aside his pacifism for the greater good. None of these mini-plots were amazing on their own, but put together all of them felt like the author succeeded in juggling a half-dozen plotlines. I am impressed. A lot of stories can’t be bothered to give side characters plot arcs, which I find disappointing.
The book’s stakes felt… nonexistant? This book felt like a folktale, about heroes doing good, fighting monsters, and you know it will all come out alright in the end. And that’s fine, not all books have to be super-high stakes. The same goes for the tension: I was never afraid the heroes would lose. I knew from the moment I started reading this book that this wasn’t the sort of book where it was possible for the heroes to lose. Simply put, this story is a joyous romp, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)
The author utilized ‘windowpane’ prose, meaning the prose was crystal clear and easy to understand as opposed to vivid and gorgeous in it’s own right.
The story’s tone reminded me most of classic adventure party fiction. If you’ve read such a book you know what I’m talking about. Think Dragonlance, Shannarah, Riyeria, Kings of the Wyld…
The book played around with a theme of death and vengeance. Yokai are spirits of revenge, who return from the grave to plague the living. The protagonists are mostly-alive heroes who are returned from the grave to get revenge for the little boy. Yokai and the restless dead are all over this book… all over it. (Including the cover.)
SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY
The setting is a vaguely Asian/China/Japan like setting, with bamboo forests, mountain valleys filled with martial-arts training monks, oni, demons, Mizuchi, chi-magic, warlords fighting over provinces… you get the idea. Imagine an anime TV show, or a wuxia movie set in fantasyland. I can’t say it’s super original, but it was fun! (Original is overblown anyway.)
I listened to the audiobook on audible. I got it as a packaged deal- the entire trilogy for the cost of a single credit. Check it out, I thought the narrator did a good job.
- Originality is overblown. The world building in this is like several other things I’ve read/watched on TV/video games I’ve played. And that’s fine. I enjoyed my time here, and the story used the tropes well.
- Twist endings! Strive to foreshadow your twist ending, but hide it just enough that the reader can’t predict it. Using my metaphor from earlier- be a stage magician who distracts with one hand while doing mundane trickery with the other, to set up the twist ending.
- Also, this book did a good job of foreshadowing the ‘twist’ ending. I (the reader) anticipated half of the twist, but stopped guessing after I anticipated that half. The lesson here is to make part of the twist obvious enough that the reader stops looking for the other half (but be sure to foreshadow the other half! Just be sneaky about it.).
- More on Twist endings… make sure your book is worth reading WITHOUT the twist. I enjoyed this book before I even read the twist. The twist itself was the cherry on top.
- I’ve read some books with twist endings which I did not enjoy, until I read the twist ending which pulled the entire book together. I feel bittersweet about such books, because such books are a slogs to read through until the very end when they finally get good.
- I’d much rather read a book which is good from the first page and not a slog. And when the reader finally gets to the twist, the twist re-contextualizes the entire book and makes the story that much better.
- In adventure party fiction, be sure to give every single adventurer at least a small plot arc/character arc. It might be hard to juggle, but it’s worth it.
This is a fun adventure story, with a neat ending. If that sounds good to you, check it out.
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