By Benjamin Martin
Available now from Tuttle
Semi-finalist in 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards
I found the synopsis of SAMURAI AWAKENING somewhat troubling. Exchange student David Matthews gets possessed by a Japanese god, gets powers, and must rescue his host sister. That's definitely a set up with lots of room for cultural appropriation. But I wanted to give it a chance since Tuttle Publishing is the largest publisher of books on Asia. I didn't even know they published young adult novels. They're mostly a publisher of nonfiction. But Tuttle's reputation made me want to take a chance.
SAMURAI AWAKENING does avoid some of the worst pitfalls. When David bonds with a kami, it might allow him to speak and understand Japanese, but he doesn't have the accompanying social and cultural knowledge he needs to be truly fluent. He's not sure of when to be formal or informal and doesn't know when to bow or make other physical gestures, among other issues. It does solve several of his problems, but not all of them. David must also train with Kou, the kami, if he is going to use his abilities effectively. After several months of training he's still not as good with a sword as the other characters who have been practicing for years. That's nicely realistic.
Mythology fans will probably get a kick out of SAMURAI AWAKENING. David fights Japanese monsters and he needs to learn the lore. Debut author Benjamin Martin does a good job of marking when he's making up a legend for the novel and when an actual myth is being discussed. Those less interested in monsters might find the passages relating to them a bit of an infodump.
There are a bunch of characters to keep track of. Some people who seem important at first just fade out of the narrative. Natsuki, who seems like a generic mean girl, turns out to be very important. In fact, she's the secondary hero. But generally, the characters drifting in and out of the frame is just one of the ways SAMURAI AWAKENING lacks polish.
The whole story told a bit too dryly. David suffers some major changes to his life, but gets over them almost instantly. He gets one major bomb dropped on him that he worries about for maybe a day. The editing could have been better as well. Chul Moo and Chul Soon's names are often swapped and there are several tense errors. (Other sentences, there are no tense errors, but they're phrased in a way that's easy to parse incorrectly.)
I still found SAMURAI AWAKENING fun. It's full of lots of things I like, including lots of sword fights and a girl character who isn't about to change to make a guy happy. There is some awkwardness in how the Koreans are handled, which is unfortunately very Japanese of Martin. I think it could be the start of a series, and while there's room for improvement, I'd probably read the next novel. Manga and anime fans looking for a non-graphic novel will probably devour SAMURAI AWAKENING pretty eagerly.