Sunday, July 27, 2008

BOOKS: Samurai Girl - Carrie Asai

I am totally, utterly confused about the Samurai Girl series (set mostly in contemporary Los Angeles) of young adult novels by Carrie Asai. First, the books are supposedly aimed at tween girls, which shocks me completely. Secondly, the first book in the series, The Book of the Sword, is a pretty decent action book that will probably make a decent TV series (There IS a Samurai Girl TV series on the way in September). And third, the next three books of the series fail to expand on the promising start, instead detailing the stupidest heroine since Pauline of the Perils of Pauline stepped aside.

By the way, I'm not kidding about it being aimed at tweens. First, the TV series is going to come from ABC Family. And secondly, from the page's description - "Grade 6 Up ... A step above the usual action/adventure series book, Sword is great for all audiences, but especially reluctant readers." It's a step above, no doubt. The rest of that excerpt is wrong.

Testing the waters to see if this would be something Angela would like, I discovered the debut book was more up A.J.'s alley. There was some girlie pining by the heroine, Heaven Kogo, for her sensei Hiro, but generally, the first book was action-oriented. Plus, the book was about a woman (young at 19, but still a woman) having your basic disastrous wedding. Or an attempt at one. She's marrying the odious Teddy Yukemura at the behest of her father. Just before the final "I do," the wedding is interrupted by a ninja or two. One kills the other, the victim being Heaven's brother Ohiko.

Instead of a Mafia Princess riff done Japanese style, we get a Heaven on the run from who knows what. Doesn't take her long to discover daddy dearest and Teddy and his family are all yakuza. Ohiko's dying words were for Heaven to seek out his friend Hiro. Heaven succeeds in short order, coming in contact with the man who will become her trainer in the ways of the Samurai.

Think a lot of 12-year girls are into this kind of story? Me neither, although a certain segment of the tween audience WILL read, understand and enjoy this book.

The remainder of the first book consists of Heaven training, occasionally fighting, sighing a lot over the unrequited passion she feels for Hiro, and trying to figure out what is going on. That mystery seems entertaining enough. Some people obviously want her dead. Others want her to return home and to continue the marriage. It's all properly mysterious and portends great fun in trying to figure who's who amongst the good and bad guys. Interspersed throughout the book are personal memos from the other characters in the story, allowing the reader to understand more of their motivations.

A big factor in wanting to continue the series was the top-notch packaging, by the Simon Pulse literary imprint. It's graphical representation makes it feel like something produced in the Orient, with marginal graphics on most pages. In fact, the marginalia greatly reduces the 215-page length to something you should be able to get through in about three hours. There are illustrations scattered throughout by Annabelle Verhoye that are evocative of Japanese woodblock art and are well-suited to the story. The last nice touch, the one that I truly think WOULD appeal to the tween girl, is a page of Samurai Girl temporary tattoos.

Good book, good package, bring on the rest of the series.

What a complete and utter disappointment the next three books are. The pining for Hiro becomes over-powering. Clearly overkill and filler. Studious editing would have cut down the books by 10 per cent without losing any substance. We get that Heaven has a big crush in Hiro. We even get Hiro wishes he could reciprocate. Even the interference by that needy witch Karen, Hiro's girlfriend, plays out over too many pages. Hammering away at it only makes the reader turn pages, waiting for the next fight.

The books follow Heaven's development as a Samurai, turning her into a literary version of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Instead of vamps, Heaven develops the ability to dispose of thugs (mostly of Japanese origin) and ninjas as if THEY were the ones just beginning their training. Sure she gets bruised a bit. And companions don't always fare well when around her. But boy, can she kick and punch with the best of them. Bet all those ninjas have remedial classes awaiting them when they go back to their dark master, whoever he or she might be. The ludicrous road-side battle with Heaven and Teddy fighting off ten ninjas dropped from a helicopter in the fourth book ... well that was a reading-stopper.

I just had to stop and think about the wasted day of my life reading about Heaven's life on the run. It started innocently and logically enough. She finds Hiro very quickly. Okay. But then, these two supposedly well-schooled people then STICK AROUND for the bad guys to continually find them and try to kidnap and/or murder them.

EVERY time when Heaven gets asked her name, she says, "Heaven!" EVERY TIME! Never Betsy, Katie or Mieko or whatever. And most times, she's free with identifying herself as Heaven Kogo. You know, the girl from the HEADLINES and who's picture has been on TV. She doesn't do much to change her appearance, other than putting on clean clothes. No change in style, no change in hair, doesn't even put on fake glasses. And when bad people find her, she does NOT RUN FOR THE HILLS! Stays put. And if that doesn't work, she'll head off for the local club, where club-hopping Teddy finds her about three-quarters of the time. And while at the club, Heaven drinks. Swears off drinking, and then drinks some more. She discovers that drinking really DOES inhibit her ability to do the martial arts stuff, so she drinks some more. It's Weekday After-School Special-level devotion to showing the evils of drinking.

Oh, and she also calls various family and Yakuza members and seems insistent on telling where she is. Then, she's surprised when the ninjas show up.

I hate the potential that was wasted from the first book. I just hope the TV series, which will probably be a marriage of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles with Buffy, will benefit from some thought put into the lead character. It's REALLY, REALLY hard to pull for such a stupid woman.

I've read four books in the series. A total of six are out, as of this writing. Those two books will have to eventually find their way to somebody else's bookshelf.

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