August 1611. Jack Fletcher is shipwrecked off the coast of Japan, his beloved father and the crew lie slaughtered by ninja pirates. Rescued by the legendary sword master Masamoto Takeshi, Jack's only hope is to become a samurai warrior. And so his training begins. But life at the samurai school is a constant fight for survival. Even with his friend Akiko by his side, Jack is singled out by bullies and treated as an outcast. With courage in his heart and his sword held high, can Jack prove himself and face his deadliest rival yet?
I always find it a little embarrassing when a publisher emails me asking if I would like a copy of the latest book in the series, and I have to reply with the confession that I have not yet read any of the previous books. This happened last week, and the book on offer was The Ring of Water, the fifth book in Chris Bradford's Young Samurai series. Why have I not yet read any of them? I have no idea, especially as we have them in the school library, I know they are incredibly popular with boys, and they contain martial arts. But thanks to the generosity of Puffin I have now started to remedy that situation, and one book in I am totally hooked and mentally kicking myself for not having picked these up earlier.
In case you are like me and you are yet to discover the joys of reading this series, the first book, The Way of the Warrior, is set in 1611 and follows the story of Jack Fletcher, a twelve year old boy who has been at sea for the past two years. His father is a skilled marine navigator and is the pilot of a ship that is trying to make its way to Japan on a trading mission, and as such be the first English vessel to reach these islands. Without giving too much away, Jack soon finds himself shipwrecked, orphaned and eventually waking up in a strange building, surrounded by strange people. Before too long he discovers that his saviour is none other than legendary samurai Masamoto, who takes him on as his adopted son. With the help of a small handful of friends he manages to learn much of their language, and some of their rules of etiquette, but he is still very much a fish out of water.
As a basic plot, The Way of the Warrior fits a theme that we have seen a number of times in recent years:
- boy finds himself in a strange situation,
- boy makes deadly enemy,
- boy is sent to a specialist school
- boy makes friends and enemies amongst other students
- boy gets on with some teacher but not other
- boy faces a number of extreme tests
- and so on.
Ring any bells? However, I'm not at all criticising the book for this, as this now common basic plot is perfect for engaging young readers as they are able to associate with much that is put in front of our protagonist. Most 10+ readers can imagine what it is like to start a new school; most will be able to share his fear at losing his father; most will wonder how they would react when faced with bullies, tough teachers, and so on. And this is the sort of thing that will have them identifying closely with Jack and turning the pages to find out what happens to him next.
What makes this book stand out from other with similar storylines is its 17th Century Japanese setting, and the huge amounts of research that Chris Bradford must have carried out in order to write it. Yes, it helps that Chris has a background in martial arts, having practised one or other of them since the age of seven, and currently holds a black belt in Kyo Shin taijutsu, the secret fighting art of the ninja. This first hand experience no doubt came in very useful when writing the many action scenes, all of which are rich with detail whilst also being very easy to follow. With just the good plot and the great fight scenes this book would be a good read, but what makes it a great read is the way the author explains the complex nature of Japanese culture without it ever feeling like a lecture. The phrase "stranger in a strange land" is surely rarely as apt as it is in describing Jack's situation - a working class English lad suddenly thrown into a culture where even a glance at the wrong person at the wrong time could find someone with their head being taken off by an insulted samurai with a razor sharp sword. As readers we follow Jack's cultural journey step by step, always learning with him, safe in the knowledge that like Jack we too are learning from someone with a great knowledge of Japanese culture.
Some struggling readers may find elements of this book a little tricky to follow. Chris Bradford never patronises his audience, and as such his writing includes many Japanese words that will be alien to these readers. However, in my opinion the book is all the better for these and they play an essential part in making this book such a rewarding read. As I said, I am now hooked, and I am trying to plan the reading of the rest of this series around the other books on my ever-tottering To Be Read pile. Book five in the series, The Ring of Water, is released on 3rd March, and I hope I will be able to write a review of that one sometime in April.