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I've always loved Japan and the Japanese, as the structure in their society and the respect they have for each other has always appealed to me. Unfortunately, I have never been able to master any of the martial arts, but I find reading about the society and their artists is a fair compromise, as I get to enjoy the excitement of being a great warrior, without needing to go through any of the hard work to actually become one.
Jack Fletcher doesn't have this option, as after ninja pirates on the coast of Japan attack his ship and his father killed, a samurai rescues him. His rescuer soon adopts him and Jack sets about learning the Japanese language and their customs, traditions and way of life. In time, Masamoto takes him to his training school, where Jack learns more about what it means to be a samurai, both in terms of fighting and in terms of how a samurai should behave.
The main problem Jack faces is not so much getting his head around the language or the physical rigour of the samurai training, but being accepted. Whilst his friend Akiko is happy to help Jack settle in, many others see him as a gaijin, or foreigner; someone who has no right to be in Japan at all, much less in one of the best samurai schools. Even his now adopted brother Yamato resents his position within the family. This causes problems not just within the school, but also outside and forces Masamoto into accepting a challenge they might not be ready for and risk the reputation of the school as being the best in Japan.
As a fan of all things Japanese, I enjoyed the slow build to the story as Jack and the others went through their training. The Japanese way of life is a lot more formal and considered than Western European life, and this was reflected wonderfully in Bradford's writing. The action on the boat at the start was very high paced, reflecting the urgency of being at sea, as well as defending the ship against attackers and this was again used when they were fighting, even in training. However, in the more formal parts of the training and where Jack was learning what it means to be a samurai, the pace was slower. As this part of Jack's training took the most time, this does mean that the pace of the book was slower than some adventure stories. This may put some readers off, but it is worth persevering with, as the rewards are great.
For much to my surprise, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the story. I expected to be interested, thanks to my Japanese experiences, but I didn't think I'd become quite as involved in Jack's life as I did. Bradford writes very well, showing you enough of his characters that you can make a judgement about them and then putting them in situations where you can't help but be concerned for the outcome. He also draws the characters so well that you instinctively know who is the one you are meant to be cheering for as whilst Jack may be more of a hero in training than an actual hero, it's clear he's on the side of good. It's also a reflection of how well it's written that, despite Jack's name being a giveaway amongst all the Japanese names, it occasionally needed the other students referring to him as gaijin to remind me that he is a foreigner.
As much as I enjoyed the book, I did think that the ending was a little weak. It all seemed a little too simple and convenient and seemed to be to have descended into moralising rather than story. There were a couple of other points during the tale where plot devices were used that didn't seem to quite fit with the rest of the story. Whilst I'll concede that they were necessary, particularly in the way Jack came to learn Japanese, they did grate a little, given how well Bradford controlled all other aspects of the story in terms of characterisation and pace.
I can see that this book and, quite possibly, the "Young Samurai" series in general will divide the reader's opinion. For those with any interest in Japan or the martial arts, it will be a fascinating insight into what the famed samurai had to go through to become as skilled and as respected as they were. Any reader that can put aside the lack of pace for much of the story and persevere will be well rewarded. For those readers who prefer something that is more all action, where there is something constantly happening, it may prove a little slow moving. Whilst the set plays are thrilling and very well written, there is a lot of slower material between them that may bore the reader.
One of the teachers in the story quotes Lao Tzu: "Every journey begins with just one step". For those with the patience to take the journey one step at a time, this is an enlightening and enjoyable read. For those who prefer to rush to their destination, this will take them on a scenic route they may not enjoy. As one of the former and as someone with a special interest in part of the subject matter here, I enjoyed the first step and hope the journey is a long one. At prices like £5.19 from Amazon and £3.75 from Green Metropolis, finding out may be a little too expensive if you're not certain you'll enjoy it, but if you can get a copy from £1.23 from the Amazon Marketplace or from £1.90 on eBay, it's not too big a first step to be making.