Allen and Unwin (2010)
Reviewed by Nick Evans, August 2010
Taro is a young peasant villager (and master archer) living quietly in a small village in the middle of the shogunate wars of 16th century Japan. By the second chapter his father is murdered in a sudden ninja attack and he is forced to flee with his best friend, Hiro, and good-guy ninja Shushako, sent to rescue them by unknown parties. Taro is fatally stabbed through the stomach during their escape and is only saved when Shushako reveals the greatest secret of the ninjas – that they are all also vampires.
The three flee together and Taro discovers he is also the son of Tokugawa, one of the two most important of the warring lords of the period. His death, of course, has been ordered by the other most important lord of the period, Lord Oda – a fact revealed by a random taoist abbess, later murdered by Oda’s minions for her part in helping him flee.
Taro is joined by the adoptive daughters of the abbess, and the four are trained by his new adoptive ninja clan.The middle part of the book is devoted to the usual round of training sequence cliches and an obligatory pointless rivalry with the son of the putative head of the ninja clan – which, of course, live in the camouflaged basin of an extinct volcano, James Bond style. The book culminates in a moral dilemma when Taro is sent to assassinate a woman whose life he has previously saved, etc.
At its heart Blood Ninja is a standard boy of prophetic destiny story – with the twist, of course, being that Taro is a ninja vampire boy of prophetic destiny. Blood Ninja is about as silly as it sounds.
Nick Lake has produced a pleasant enough book, easy on the eye and mind, though the plot twists are well telegraphed and the characters are perhaps a little thin.
There’s very little to recommend this book to an adult reader. It’s competently enough written, but vampire ninjas are not, fundamentally, a very good idea – and Lake really doesn’t do enough with it to rescue the book from that fundamental flaw.
That said, however, I suspect that my 14 year old self – that same 14 year old that was permanently outraged that The Belgariad never won a World Fantasy Award – would have loved it.
It’s fast paced, the bad guys are satisfyingly bad, and there’s enough pretense of moral ambiguity for it to spark the odd argument amongst a pack of teenage friends.
I can’t recommend the book to an adult, but I’d be more than happy to pay the cover price as a gift to a teenage nephew (or even niece, possibly – there are several strong female characters. Though they play relatively minor roles for the majority there seems some hope they’ll move to centre stage later in the series).
A younger audience won’t be aware that the cliches are cliches, won’t spot plot twists coming over the horizon and will likely finish the book satisfied with a fast paced story, a setting that seems both familiar and exotic at the same time, characters their fantasy selves might identify with, and the promise of more of the same to come.