Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Review - Legend of a Ninja: Beneath the Shadows by Jarius Raphel

Short review: Ninjas are awesome! And they kill stuff! And they have an Order for umm, I don't know why. But there's a cool gate to the shadow realm, and a cool katana with a cool name! And lots of posing, vaporing, and killing. And, umm, ninja stuff.

Cool posing ninjas
Hiding, fighting, teleporting
Very pointlessly

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: Legend of a Ninja: Beneath the Shadows is the product of Jarius Raphel, a composite author made up of an undefined collection of individuals. The book is a fantasy story featuring ninjas along with all the usual fantasy accouterments: dark elves, vampires, wizards, knights, and so on. Although the novel shows flashes of promise, it suffers from a lack of depth, a lack of focus, and a lack of polish that overwhelms the handful of good moments and results in a story that is simply not worth reading.

The story opens by introducing Nix and Banon, the two masters of the "Ninja Order", and in their description one gets a hint of the problems to come with the book. Their description says "Most would guess they were nearing 98 years old, though their posture and grace would make it hard to believe." But this leaves the reader wondering, which is it? Would someone guess they are ninety-eight years old, or would they find that hard to believe? This sort of description is a harbinger of things to come: The authors seem to have a wide array of "cool" descriptions for the various ninjas that they more or less mix and match together without necessarily considering whether the end result makes much sense.

I suspect that the problems with the book is because the people who make up Jarius Raphel are probably bright, but young and inexperienced. From a certain perspective, the whole book feels like a group of friends watched Naruto, started a fantasy role-playing campaign about ninjas, and then decided to write the stories of their characters out in story form. It seems like the entire book was pushed into print before it was really ready, and probably needed at least two major editing passes: a first to clean up the story and strengthen the places where setting background needed to be improved, and a second just to improve the writing in the book.  And this is the frustrating element: the book isn't bad because the authors didn't come up with interesting ideas or because they were incompetent, but because the authors needed an editor and some test readers.

In the story, the book quickly abandons Banon and Nix as more or less irrelevant, and focuses on the ninja Wrath of the Shadows, a self-taught ninja who is a member of the Iofrehn clan, which consists of fourteen members who almost never interact with one another and are described as not being bound to the ninja Order. They are also, supposedly, the most powerful ninjas in the world. As usual for the book, almost all of these statements are contradicted in the course of the book, which makes one think that the various contributors to the project simply didn't talk to one another when they were writing their material. This sort of inconsistency also makes the reader simply stop caring about the characters, because nothing that one reads in the book matters a couple pages later when whatever you were told before is casually tossed aside. In any event, Iofrehn ninjas are forbidden from falling in love, but Wrath wants to be allowed to be in love with another Iofrehn named Zyonel and so asks Nohran, the head of the Iorfrehn for permission. Nohran immediately casts Wrath out of the Iofrehn (on the grounds that being in love makes you a less powerful ninja, citing the "Taken" clan who can marry and who are apparently not powerful), and because he is now not part of the Order, he's an unauthorized ninja who can be killed, so she tries to kill him.

And this leads to the convoluted story in which Wrath teleports around using "vapor wills" trying to figure out a way to keep Nohran from killing him, Zyonel zips about sometimes in love with Wrath, sometimes pledging his allegiance to Aurora, the nymph ninja of the Kiss clan who he has apparently been secretly married to (despite the Iofrehn prohibition on love and relationships). And so on. Setting elements are thrown in to the story almost at random. There are dark elf ninja, vampire ninja, and a lot of posing and looking cool thrown in for no real discernible reason. In one scene, a representative of the vampire ninja clan shows up looking for a fugitive vampire ninja and begins killing bystanders to get the dark elf ninjas to hand the object of their hunt over. In another, a goddess shows up and Wrath enlists with her, whereupon we find out for the first time that there is some sort of conflict between the ninjas and the gods. What is the source of this conflict is never really stated - it is just another setting element that pops up out of left field and is never explained. Over and over again setting or plot elements are introduced without any foundation or explanation. And this is a large part of what makes it seem like the authors were transcribing a role-playing campaign or a particular anime series: they clearly had some sort of blueprint in their head as to the background of the story, but because they were so familiar with it, they didn't think to pass that information on to the reader.

The story weaves along throwing new stuff at the reader at a rapid clip: the estranged ninja child of a war god comes into the story, a shadowy realm that is supposedly the source of ninja power comes along, a magical katana (never mind that ninjas don't use katanas) turns out to be the key to the shadow realm, a book with all the names of all the ninjas in the world is found, and so on. We find out that Nix and Banon, despite being introduced as masters of the ninja Order, do not actually control the ninja Order. After the Gaiden clan, who are the enforcers for the ninja Order, is introduced, we discover that the Iofrehn are not the most powerful ninja clan when they are all killed off-camera almost as an afterthought. Once the supposed villain of the story is dealt with, the story takes a left turn and another character becomes the primary villain for no apparent reason. All in all, the story is just a mess, with plot developments thrown with no rhyme or reason other than possibly "this is cool!"

The Gaiden clan themselves are an example of this: one of the clan members always floats above the ground. The other is so intelligent and skilled at speaking that they can "emotionally devastate" their opponents by insulting them. A third is the best swordsman in the world, and the last is so sneaky he's always hiding in the shadows. This sort of hyperbole permeates the book and makes everything in it seem so silly. Everyone is "the best" or "the fastest" or some other superlative - until they aren't, at which point someone kills them, or they run away or something. Ninjas often don't fight, they just look at each other and one simply knows that the other is more "powerful", although what that means in the context of ninja skills (which presumably include a wide array of stealthy skills, magical powers, and fighting abilities) is never explained.

The book's main failing, and which if fixed would go a long way to raising this to a palatable fantasy story is that it simply never fills in the background of the setting or the characters that would make any of the story seem real for the reader. The story takes place in a poorly defined fantasy land with poorly defined characters (who are mostly defined by how "powerful" and "cool" they are as ninjas) engaged in poorly explained conflicts with poorly explained goals. Having the story shift rails more than once, and having the main antagonist of the first part of the book swapped out for another in the second further increases the confusion of the story. By trying to pack what is essentially two sequential stories into one book, the authors created a hurried and busy book heavy on meaningless action and sparse on substance. If the book had been split into two books, with each one dealing with a single villainous plot, which would have opened up room in each book to provide the setting background and character development that is simply lacking here.

With a confused, overly busy story lacking in setting depth or consistency Legend of a Ninja: Beneath the Shadows is simply a mess. Although there are a few interesting ideas here and there, they are all executed in such a haphazard fashion as to overwhelm them in a sea of mediocrity. If you are interested in a book containing super cool ninjas engaged in posing and insulting one another without any real motivations, then Legend of a Ninja is just right for you. On the other hand, if you want a fantasy story with a comprehensible setting, characters that you can care about, and a plot that makes sense, then you should probably give this book a pass.

Subsequent book in the series: Legend of a Ninja 2: Rise of the Shadowsalve

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