Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Review - Legend of a Ninja 2: Rise of the Shadowsalve

Short review: Ninjas are even more awesome! And they fight each other! And they kill Gods! And stuff!

Darwin and Leena
Meet Rumble in a bar fight
Let's be a new clan!

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: It is five years after the events described in Legend of a Ninja: Beneath the Shadows and a new cast of ninjas takes center stage to strike fashionable poses and look cool. As in the first book in the series, the plot in Legend of a Ninja 2: Rise of the Shadowsalve is full of lots of action and conflict, but the extremely scanty world-building and limited character development makes all of that action meaningless to the reader. Like the first book, this one needed one or two rewrites under the direction of a good editor, and probably could have been split into two books to allow for better background to be added so as to give the story context and meaning. In short, this book, like its predecessor, is a confused jumble of action and adventure involving poorly defined characters fighting for poorly defined objectives in a poorly defined setting.

One would think that because this story takes place in the same setting that Beneath the Shadows was set in, the setting would be reasonably well-developed at this point, and by the time the book ended, the reader would have a reasonably good idea of the parameters of the fantasy world. But one would be wrong. The dearth of setting background that was the hallmark of Beneath the Shadows is followed up here as the authors rummage around in the grab-bag of fantasy elements to throw random material into the story. Now there are cat people! And dragon ninjas! And more gods! And black knights! And a ninja army! And so on. The ninja roster of Wrath, Banon, Nix, Darwin, and the fearsome quartet that make up the Gaiden clan is expanded to include Leena, Rumble, Jarius (yes, the author shares a name with a character in the book), and Saydin, who grab the spotlight in this story and race around aimlessly engaged in convoluted plotting, pointless backstabbing, and generally creating a lot of sound and fury with little substance.

The plot, to the extent it matters, involves Zyonel returning from the Shadow Realm aided by the supposedly enigmatic Dark Starlet who is actually Zyonel's wife and Leena's mother somehow transformed by her sojourn in the Shadow Realm. Zyonel wants the magical katana the Dark Kry to exert mastery over the Shadow Realm and reclaim his position as Shadow Lord. Meanwhile, Leena has decided to become a ninja, though she is not part of any recognized clan and therefore is subject to being killed out of hand by the Order. She recruits Darwin and they form the Shadowsalve clan, named after Darwin's family and they set about picking up random ninjas to be part of the nascent group. Darwin's father Jayus is the god of war and ruler of the nation of Warsong, and he also holds a grudge against the ninja Order because his wife Marionne was a ninja who was killed for some reason or other by the d'Ville clan of ninjas on the orders of the Shadow Lord. To secure his revenge, Jayus has trained an army of knights specially trained to fight ninjas. Leena and Darwin claim to be "bonded" and try to get the clan recognized by the Order, but the order spurns them, precipitating some sort of crisis between the ninjas and the nation of Warsong. Then other gods get involved, the Gaiden clan has a plan involving a secret army of ninjas, the Warsong black knights try to destroy the ninja order at the behest of Jayus, the dragon ninjas double-cross people, are double-crossed themselves, the gods show up, get double-crossed, ninjas double- and triple-cross one another. If this all sounds hopelessly and needlessly complicated, rest assured that it is. Not only that, this summary, out of necessity, is a simplified version of all the convoluted doings of the characters in the book.

In the first book there were hints that suggested that the characters and plot for the Legend of a Ninja books were derived from a group of friends participating in a fantasy role-playing campaign. In Rise of the Shadowsalve, the role-playing campaign roots of the story are even more apparent. While recruiting members for their new clan, Darius and Leena come across Rumble during a bar fight, which is apparently the only qualification one needs to join a ninja clan. And of course, when given the opportunity to join an unrecognized clan and presumably mark himself as fair game for the Order to kill out of hand, Rumble immediately signs up. Later Darwin and Leena run across Jarius, the only cat-person ninja who is not a member of the cat-person ninja clan (making him a legitimate target to be killed by the other cat-ninjas), and he too leaps at the chance to ally himself with Leena and Darwin for no real reason other than they are the protagonists in the story. These and many other seemingly nonsensical sorts of decisions characters make in the book make perfect sense if one assumes that they are characters in a role-playing game and their players are putting them together to form an adventuring party. In fact, the "you meet during a bar fight" method of introducing new characters to a campaign is so common as to be a cliché. Many instances of odd behavior crystallize and make sense when viewed in this light: when the characters double-cross one another and then make-up and work together again, their willingness to let bygones be bygones is easy to explain if one assumes that they are controlled by players sitting around a gaming table.

Transforming a role-playing game into the framework for a story has been successfully done as evidenced by the example of Record of the Lodoss War and others, but if this was the actual genesis of the the Legend of a Ninja series, it is clear that such an effort can also be botched. The central flaw in the book is that the various characters seem to have little motivation for doing most of the things they do, a malady that afflicts the protagonists, their antagonists, and bystanders. The ninja Order is opposed to the gods for no apparent reason. Jayus Shadowsalve seeks revenge against the ninja Order for the death of his wife, but the ninja Order initially provoked the conflict by having her killed for no real reason. The Gaiden betray the ninja Order by training the entire nation of Merin into a secret ninja army, then they support the ninja Order by using the secret ninja army to turn back Jayrus' invasion, then they betray the ninja Order by trying to get rid of the current masters and claim the Shadow Lord title. The ninja Order seems to exist for no reason other than to be ninjas, but being a ninja seems to be a pointless exercise. And quite it is likely a boring existence for many ninjas - there are numerous references to "watch ninjas" at the dojo of the Order, which means there are ninjas whose job is apparently to stand around and guard a building, which seems like an awfully petty job to use a ninja to do. The Gaiden use their secret ninja army as foot soldiers in a war, but only after commanding them to kill each other when the battle is over - and not only do these foot soldier ninjas bravely fight in battle, they then faithfully carry out the directive to turn on one another afterwards. Some ninjas are "in" and thus safe from the Order, others are "out" and get despite the apparent lust for more power held by the masters of the Order, they demand that "outside" ninjas be killed, in many cases no matter how willing they might be to join the Order. The dragon ninjas help Jayrus, until they decide not to for no apparent reason. The reader is expected to accept that the villains want power, but it seems they want power for its own sake, and not for any other goal than to be a more powerful ninja than anyone else. What the various characters would gain from being the most powerful ninja around is never explained. It is just assumed that they would want to be powerful, just like it is assumed that the ninja Order would want to be as powerful as it could be with no other purpose than to be powerful. They don't want to change anything, or right any wrongs, or get rich and live lives of ease or any other goals other than "be powerful". And consequently, as in the first book, despite the almost constant action and espionage that the characters engage in, it all seems pointless and uninteresting.

There are some convoluted subplots involving personal family disputes, a couple of ancestral swords, and healing dust, but they just add to the confusion of the plot without really contributing much to the story. Although this may seem like a rehash of a point I made from the review of the first book Beneath the Shadows, that is only natural as Rise of the Shadowsalve shares almost all of the problems its predecessor had. As with the first book, this book probably should have been split into two books to provide a more focused plot in each volume and allow for more extensive setting and character development. And also like the first book, this volume really needed the attentions of an editor who could wade through the material and take the handful of gems in the text, polish them to a shine, and then rebuild the story around them while discarding the chaff. As the book stands now, it is simply too jumbled, too unfocused, and too weakly plotted to be worth reading.

Previous book in the series: Legend of a Ninja: Beneath the Shadows

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