February 21, 2012

Review: Katana, by Cole Gibsen

Author: Cole Gibsen
Title: Katana
ISBN: 9780738730400
Publisher: Flux (March 8th 2012)
Disclaimer: Copy received for review purposes.

Buy your copy:  Paperback

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Kill Bill meets Buffy in this supernatural samurai tale.    

Rileigh Martin would love to believe that adrenaline gave her the uncanny courage and strength to fend off three muggers. But it doesn’t explain her dreams of fifteenth century Japan, the incredible fighting skills she suddenly possesses, or the strange voice giving her battle tips and danger warnings. While worrying that she’s going crazy (always a reputation ruiner), Rileigh gets a visit from Kim, a handsome martial arts instructor, who tells Rileigh she’s harboring the spirit of a five-hundred-year-old samurai warrior.

Relentlessly attacked by ninjas, Rileigh has no choice but to master the katana--a deadly Japanese sword that’s also the key to her past. As the spirit grows stronger and her feelings for Kim intensify, Rileigh is torn between continuing as the girl she’s always been and embracing the warrior inside her.” GoodReads’ blurb

Katana is an enjoyable read, fast paced and full of action.

Rileigh as a character was easy to understand and simpathize with: her reactions to the high-tension situation, her denial of the craziness that’s taken hold of her life, the way she still manages to worry about things like a love life or her reputation. I think I’d freak out more than she does... and yet she has enough troubles adjusting to her situation that I can believe it.

The only thing that didn’t quite register with me was the fact that she’s a skater, but that might be because of my own cultural background and cliché assumptions – skaters where I’m from don’t wear skinny pants or heels and definitely aren’t considered popular. It didn’t really factor in the story, either, so it like like it was a bit of color thrown in.

Rileigh’s best friend, Q, must have been my favorite character ever. The full name’s Quentin and the guy’s a diva, drama queen, whatever you want to call it. His histrionics were just too amusing and my only complaint in his regard is the absolute ease with which he takes the news that his best friend’s a reincarnated samurai. As if reincarnation –and remembering of pas lives- were the most obvious things. But he’s stll funny, so I can forgive that bit.

Kim, the lead guy here, didn’t appear on screen nearly enough to let me gauge him. In some ways, he’s this charismatic leader who has everything under control and holds all the answers and in others he’s a guy who keeps being mysterious for the sake of it, witholding information and thus handling the situations with less finesse than an elephant. I had trouble relating to him and to his relationship with Rileigh, and I kept thinking that Rileigh’s fear regarding the attraction –not spoiling it- was not just well-founded, but spot on.

There’s two other guys integral to the story, a jock of sorts who’s after Rileigh and who I just wanted to dump –good instincs I have and all- and a creepy doctor who suddenly forces himself into Rileigh’s life... He’s creepy, and even after I’ve read the end, I still don’t know whether I hate him. I can say that he does have his motivations, though, so that’s good.

That’s my thoughts on the cast. You know I usually believe that a good cast makes more than half of a good story.

Speaking about stories and storyline, Katana’s was pretty straighforward. Rileigh needs to find herself, decide who she is, who she can trust... The consequences come in the form of the bad guys, and while I don’t really understand their purpose, who they are, why they’re hunting the good guys and Rileigh in particular... the action was entertaining, as I said.

There are many issues left unresolved in this novel. Everything I just named, for starters, and also all the answers about the good guys – who come with their own package that I can’t tell you about without spoiling the story. I have a feeling that more things should come, more things should be solved – that we can’t be left knowing what we do and then just move on as if nothing had happened. I’m hoping there’s a second book, because otherwise the read could be potentially frustrating.

In any case, though, I found Katana to be a light and entertaining book, and would recommend it to anyone looking to have a fast read, who likes a story with hints of the supernatural and hints of... You know the genre, with large hidden organizations beyond the world’s awareness and a select few fighting for the good cause.

And that’s my standard review, because I know that most people won’t care about the issues that bothered me. However, this being my personal opinion and all, I must list the things that pulled me out of the story. All of them are research-related issues, and I’m being a purist about that because a lot of people take the bits of knowledge hidden in books at face value, and I feel that we have a responsibility to give them the right knowledge.

I’m aware that sometimes we have to change history, or myth, or whatever, in order to enhance the storyline. I’m okay with that. I’m not so okay when the changes don’t benefit the story, which I believe to be the case.

Here we go:

Noppera-b. This might get fixed on the final version, I guess. It’s supposed to be a Japanese word meaning ghost without a face. It really means “without features”, yes, and it is a mythological being fitting the above description. Only, it’s actually Nopperabou. Dashes and lone consonants do not exist in Japanese.

Ninja armies of baddies. Ninja didn’t work for the bad guys. They were elite mercenaries who worked for everyone. Every single army during this period made use of ninja agents (at the time, they’re actually called shinobi if male and kunoichi if female). Please, note the use of the word agent. As in, not army. They didn’t work as huge military units because of the very nature of their military unit, and when overtaking a castle, they would never strike alone. Their job in such an assault would be to infiltrate, hide, wait for the samurai and regular soldiers to hit, and then put fire to the towers, assassinate key targets, retrieve important info... Never, ever, to conduct the attack alone and in great numbers.

Female samurai. Rileigh and two other girls are called female samurai, which just doesn’t exist. It’s not a “the warrior role was purely male and thus they’re just defying the stereotypes” kind of not exists, either: samurai is the male term for the bushi caste. The correct female name for this role is onna bugeisha – they existed, were highly respected, had the same rights and duties as the samurai... And if the term is too complicated, couldn’t we just say “female warrior” to avoid confusion?

Warrior peasants. There’s a couple of characters whose loyalty to a certain lord is based on the fact that they were peasants, but wanted to be samurai. However, as peasants, they weren’t supposed to fight and had to hide their sword-games. As a matter of fact, though, during the Sengoku Jidai (age of warring states, where the flashbacks take place) every single person was expected and required to fight, in the same way that even samurai were expected to work the land inbetween wars due to the instability of the country. So, not only they’d not be forbidden to fight – they’d be trained for it. There’s a small, funny exception to this that’s coming later.

Samurai peasants. Related to the above point. The lord takes in the kids and trains them as warriors, so they become samurai. Actually, samurai is not “warrior”, but a whole social caste. It’s nobility. They’d become warriors, soldiers, even respected generals and advisors... but not samurai. There was one single group of “samurai-not-by-birth”, the Shinsengumi, centuries later, when the role of samurai was in decline, but that’s another story altogether.

Lord Toyotomi. The guy who saves the kids, “makes an exception” for Rileigh to be a female warrior, and is such a beloved leader. The author might have made up this character completely... but if that’s the case, I found it odd that it matched the name of an actual Lord (or daimyou) during the exact period during which the flashback takes place. I couldn’t help making the connexion in my head, and this led to several funny issues:

Toyotomi would have known all about the peasants not being able to become samurai, because that was his precise case. He rose to the height of power, to the point that he was the one who set the basis for the unified Tokugawa shogunate, but he was a daimyou and not a shogun – because in order to be a shogun you had to be a samurai, and he wasn’t. He rose as high as one, but parallel. He was given a name, Toyotomi, but not the samurai status. Which is why it bothered me that he, of all people, went and decided to elevate anyone to the one title he could never achieve.

Remember when I said there was a small detail about peasants being soldiers? Well, it was precisely Toyotomi the one who issued the order saying that the peasants must be disarmed after over two centuries of fighting tradition. But then, he went and started training peasant kids? Irony at its best, no?.

Finally, there’s the issue of the whole cast being so indebted to Toyotomy, loving him, him being so gentle. Well... he did great things. One of them was, as I said, setting the basis that would end the Sengoku Jidai, unifying Japan. But I still don’t think he’s that cool, taking into account that one of the meassures he took to secure that unification was making sure that the succession couldn’t be questioned... by ordering one of his two sons to commit ritual suicide and by killing all of his son’s family who refused to kill themselves as well.

Couldn’t we have used any other japanese Daimyou? Made up any other name that wouldn’t ring a bell?

But the greatest question would be: why not write according to the research, if the truth didn’t stand in the way of the story?

I guess, if you’ve bothered to read the “extra” review, that now you understand why I said that most people wouldn’t mind the things that made me roll my eyes. The fact is that I’m deeply involved with Japanese culture and also am quite familiar with the Sengoku and with ninjutsu. No, I’m not a ninja. They disappeared. I still study it. And I think Katana would have been so much better if it reflected the reality it refers to, and if the link between the past and the present were more clear – if some of the questions I mentioned in the “standard” review had been answered before hitting “The End”.

If there’s a second part, however, I’ll want to read it. I think there’s potential, and it was entertaining. If you don’t care too much about accuracy, I think you’ll enjoy this one too.


  1. sounds interesting, I also love diff cultures inc Japanese.I might add this on my tbr. and btw that cover is a kickass loving that jeans! :) great review Ron.


    1. It had a lot of potential, yes. If/when there's a second, part, I'll be the first wanting to know what happens!

      Thanks for stopping by, Lalaine! :)