She stared back coolly while resting her katana lazily over her shoulders, taunting me from the cover of Jet Black and The Ninja Wind that peeked out from beneath the pile of Tuttle Publishing books for review. Teen martial arts chick lit… Having no desire to read what I assumed would be a fodder-filled plot with cheesy action and bitchy dialogue, I resolved to review Jet Black and The Ninja Wind last. Yet, with the pressure to move faster through the reviews, I moved this book back to the front (fiction was quicker to read and digest) in August.
Would my poor first impression hold? Just one chapter before going to bed… Or so I thought.
- First page – typical rantings of a teenager… as expected.
- Next page – ah… predictable ninja plot introduction… a young female highschooler with a secret life
- Page three – What is this ‘game’ that Jet has to play? She seems reluctant. Why?
I was hooked to the plot from that moment. Just one more chapter… Before I knew it, the clock showed 2 am and I had finished close to half the book.
Jet Black and The Ninja Wind takes the reader into a fast-paced world of martial arts and ninja fantasy with its attention to detail and rich descriptions, contrasting skillfully among cultures, city life and country life. The story begins in New Mexico, where Rika Kuroi (aka Jet) lives an unconventional life of hard training and living her life on the run with her mother (Satoko), yearning for a life of normalcy as a regular teenager.
Within the first chapter, the reader is swiftly thrown into the thick of the action when the ‘game’ is introduced – situational training with her mother on the mountains. But this time, Rika notices that things are different, much deadlier. This immediately introduces several points of curiosities, of which, the following stands out. Was the situation so bad that Rika’s mother had to summon extraordinary strength to play the role of attacker in spite of an illness that kills her?
Central to the plot of Jet Black and The Ninja Wind is the history of the Emishi, ancestors of Rika who were indigenous natives of Japan. Reminiscent of the well-known story of the Native Americans, but happening much earlier in history, the Emishi were forced to flee by the attacking immigrant tribe and were later made slaves. With history rewritten by the victors, the Emishi became sidelined in history as barbarians to a new era, explaining Satoko’s rage as her daughter recited the history of the Emishi moments before her passing. Yet, why had the events that happened in a time long past prompt Satoko to live her life on the run with Rika even after relocating halfway across the world?
As expected of a ninja plot, the protagonist is forced to return to Japan to find answers – where else would a ninja go? However, the clever use of the Emishi’s history and rich description of their land (in Honshu) and culture offers a fresh perspective on the “ninja goes to Japan to find answers” arc.
What I Liked
Having been forced to eat my prior assumptions and retract my cynical attitude, I enjoyed how the book skillfully melds historical events, martial arts philosophy, ninja fantasy, cross-cultural themes and the Japanese language into its plot. The sprinkling of Japanese words in various parts of the book, lends to the experience of taking a cultural journey. The action scenes (of fights, escapes and infiltration) were so superbly written that it set my heart beating a tad faster. The use of actual historical events adds a sense of realism to the story and was a great opportunity to learn more about Olden Japan.
Among my favourites was the versatility to read Jet Black and The Ninja Wind on a philosophical and metaphorical level. The authors’ creative interpretations of techniques were essentially metaphors for specific martial arts concepts and philosophy. For instance, the technique of “walking with the wind” was a metaphor for blending with the opponent, to be one in order to be unseen and unfelt.
What I disliked
While the action scenes were awesome to read, there were times when it felt as though I was sitting through a B-grade martial arts movie – great action, stereotypical shallow mastermind. Quite simply, I wanted to know more about the mastermind antagonist aside from his vague motivations of greed and desire for revenge. How did he come to be the way he is? Did he have any redeeming qualities?
The slight saving grace from the one-dimensionally written mastermind was Rika’s love interest, who she later finds out is hired by the antagonist. This young man who is written as an equal and opposing force of Rika, plays a more visible role on the antagonist side. Owing to the fact that he is a mercenary who is able to hold his own against the mastermind and seems to be in more control, it begs the question: why not equally write the story in the two character’s perspectives? This would balance the underlying development of the two opposing sides. That said, I have a nagging feeling that this might be the first book in a series with more books to come in the future.
Also, Jet Black and The Ninja Wind was clearly not immune to using ‘romance’ as a plot device. This is not a bad thing because Rika’s love interest is clearly not fodder to the plot. Yet, whether this could be attributed to the extended sensory capabilities and chi allowing them to know each others’ character intuitively, the intense mutual infatuation felt a little off. Why would Rika, at one point, follow the guy to a deserted area and challenge him to capture her, potentially risking to put in vain the deaths of her mother and another loved one. Thankfully, the authors did not do a ‘Twilight’ on this pair as a secondary plot.
Overall thoughts and verdict
Good fiction inspires us to better ourselves through living our ideals and aspirations vicariously through the protagonist and its characters within a fantasy world. And Jet Black and The Ninja Wind does just that, showing the reader how Rika transcends fears and doubts to transform into a true warrior. Hence, this book has great potential to inspire young people to courageously face their struggles to overcome their limits as martial artists. For older martial artists, this book will remind them of the allure and romance of becoming a modern warrior when they were younger.
Aside from inspiration, there are great insights from within that most martial artists will be able to relate to. Here’s a quote that made sense to me with my recent fiasco in defending against spontaneous attacks in training.
Battle is like wind. I understand that now. You can’t just use what you’ve practiced. It’s always different. You have to find a new path every second. You have to become the battle. — Hiro Kuroi
So, overall, despite the one-dimensional mastermind villain, Jet Black and The Ninja Wind was an enjoyable read with its fast-pace action and well-executed storyline. Martial artists and ninja enthusiasts will definitely be able to relate with the martial arts concepts and philosophy in this work of fiction, while Japanophiles and anime lovers will enjoy both the immensely rich cultural themes and strategic use of Japanese in the story.
If I hadn’t received this book from Tuttle Publishing, I would actually borrow it from the library had I not judged the cover so harshly.
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Jet Black and The Ninja Wind
Disclosure: ‘Jet Black and The Ninja Wind’ was given to me by Tuttle Publishing in return for my honest review. I have not and will not fake my reviews for monetary or other benefits since this is against what Way Of Ninja and I represent. Also, the links provided to Amazon will allow Way Of Ninja to earn a small commission but will not cost you more. Lastly, I have taken care to limit the amount of spoilers in this review.