Reviewed by Catherine Cheek
Readers who really want a good Yojimbo-style adventure need look no further than Travis Heermann’s Heart of the Ronin. This novel, which comes out in February 2009, is the first of The Ronin Trilogy.
Ken’ishi is a young ronin (masterless warrior) who dreams of earning a place in the service of a lord so he can become samurai. He’s an orphan who knows nothing of his past save that his father was a great warrior who bequeathed him the katana known as Silver Crane. He was raised by his teacher, a tengu, a bird-like creature known for prowess with the blade. Not only did his teacher train Ken’ishi in the art of the sword, but he also taught Ken’ishi how to sense danger and how to speak with animals.
Armed with Silver Crane and with his loyal dog Akao by his side, Ken’ishi wanders the road looking for a way to earn food and a roof over his head. One day he encounters Kazuko, a noble maiden whose guards have been slain by an oni (hate-demon). Ken’ishi and Kazuko defeat the oni and save Kazuko’s servant, Hatsumi. Little do they know that the spirit of the oni has infected others, some of whom will not rest until Ken’ishi is dead.
Kazuko and Ken’ishi walk the rest of the way to Kazuko’s home, carrying Hatsumi on a stretcher. Kazuko and Ken’ishi are the best drawn characters in the book, completely believable as they stumble into love with each other. Once they reach Kazuko’s family castle, their relative stations in life force them to go their separate ways. Forever? Only those who read the rest of the trilogy will find out, because the novel follows Kazuko and Ken’ishi’s separate lives from that point on.
Meanwhile, there’s another plot, involving a high-ranking diplomat who plans to sell his country over to the Mongol Khan. He bribes spies and ninjas (ninjas!) to find out troop and fortification information in preparation for the Mongols’ coming invasion of Japan. While this touches only tangentially on the stories of Kazuko and Ken’ishi, it promises to become more elaborate as the trilogy unfolds.
One of the strengths of this novel is way in which the characters stay true to the Medieval Japanese milieu. Even when Ken’ishi and Kazuko rail against the injustices of their society, they try to correct it without stepping outside of their class and station. Kazuko is truly in love with Ken’ishi, but when she learns she cannot be with him she accepts it as best she can. When Ken’ishi takes pity on an enslaved prostitute, he doesn’t immediately try to set her free, but thinks about the ramifications of doing so and debates what the best course of action is. Unlike many heroes, he also doesn’t equate gentlemanly behavior with a lack of sex drive—a refreshing change.
Ken’ishi is quite admirable, but he has weaknesses as well. For example, he’s quite young, and has little experience in the ways of intrigue, so when he encounters a situation that requires finesse he has to rely on others for help. Sometimes, despite his best efforts, he’s not able to solve the problems at all. For example, two villagers go missing, and he finds one, but not the other. A mysterious stranger appears and tries to kill him, but Ken’ishi doesn’t find out why. These flaws make him seem more human, despite his exceptional swordsmanship and uncanny ability to understand animals and spirits.
One of the things I liked about this novel was the way in which it was plotted. Most of the conflicts were brought up and resolved relatively quickly, so that the story was a series of adventures rather than the hero trying to accomplish one major goal. Although events from the earlier part of the book affect Ken’ishi’s life later (he continually gets in trouble for having killed a man he met in the first chapter, for example), the serial nature of his adventures reminded me strongly of Stan Sakai’s comic Usagi Yojimbo. Although each present danger makes you keep reading to find out what’s going to happen next, you don’t get the sense that his adventures are ever going to end.
The other thing I liked about the novel was the way in which the supernatural blends seamlessly into the story. There are typical folkloric elements–tanukis, kappas, onis, foxes, etc—but they aren’t just pointed out as though they were things to take pictures of; they were things that affected human life, often negatively.
The novel did have some flaws. First of all, the characters have a rather formal, longwinded way of speaking.
“My lord, he is a ronin. He has no family.”
“A ronin by unfortunate circumstance of birth, not by choice or failure. I don’t believe that to be an unfavorable mark against a man. There are many great warriors who came from humble beginnings.”
“My lord, he is not merely a penniless ronin, but an uncouth ruffian. Have you seen him?”
“My lord, I cannot imagine anyone with worse manners and bearing. His manners are worse than most peasants.”
“Another unfortunate circumstance of his upbringing. No fault of his own. Besides, with time he could learn what manners he needs.”
I grant that this might be deliberate. It does have the effect of making the characters’ speech feel as though it had been translated from another language, 13th century Japanese perhaps. The problem was everyone spoke the same way. When you have Kage and Ken’ishi and Kazuko and Kiose and Koba and Koga, and many of these people are not described physically, it makes it harder to distinguish one character from another. Also, the long, two or three sentence replies to every question tended to slow the story down.
Much of the book was told in flashbacks, illuminating some facet of Ken’ishi’s past. While I don’t mind flashbacks, even if they were perhaps too numerous, I disliked the dream sequences. Dream sequences rarely aid any story, especially when they’re written in a way that tricks you into thinking they’re real.
These are minor quibbles though. All in all, Heart of a Ronin is a solid, likeable adventure story, sure to please fans of Japanese culture, and fantasy readers alike.