Risuko: A Kunoichi Tale

(Seasons of the Sword #1)

by David Kudler

3.5 stars, actually

So okay, I know that having more girl protagonists in YA books is a good thing, and that the whole culture of kunoichi is definitely more interesting than the average ninja, and that Liam Hearn already did the whole ninja-training thing in Across the Nightingale Floor, so I feel a little guilty that my main issue with this book was the voice of the protagonist, Kano Murasaki (or Risuko).

But…I think this book would have gotten 4 stars if it was a boy in a ninja camp, because Risuko the amazing climber, who remembers some of her samurai father’s sword moves from childhood, and has a mentee/mentor relationship with a samurai in the employ of the noble who ‘buys’ her from her family might have run just a little more…true. Risuko has an immediacy of action voice, a practical attitude, and a slightly strange ignorance of female bodily functions (there’s depiction of a fellow trainee who’s stomach hurts suddenly and Risuko seems ignorant of why) that just didn’t set well with me. I felt a sense that Risuko didn’t quite develop relationships or immerse herself into the relationships emotionally with her fellow trainees or the cook. Those relationships or developing how Risuko saw herself in relation to the others would have made her more real to me.

On the other hand, the historical context and culture of this book impressed me. From the straw winter coats to the cleaning of the bathhouse to the emphasis on the Korean cook’s herbs and cooking– that stuff totally flowed with the story and felt embedded in Japanese culture of that era. The historical stuff was quite fun, too, since Risuko and her Lady are in the era when Japan was being formed as a country under Oda Nobunaga.

Riskuo’s training also didn’t push my Mary Sue buttons. She and the others are relegated to menial tasks– tasks that will help them later on but Risuko isn’t suddenly amazing (other than her climbing) in these tasks and the older initiates rightfully have a greater role to play in the plot of the book (until the very end) and the politics and show greater skills. (I am a little tired of books about hero/heroines who suddenly outshine their elders etc)

The book begins with Risuko being sold to a mysterious Lady and joining her journey to a secluded place where she is immediately put to work in the kitchens. There are many girls/women there who vaguely come and go and have mysterious lessons in the closed off hall. There is alot for Risuko to figure out in terms of why they are all being trained, and what her Lady’s ultimate purpose is, as well as a mystery about someone searching through rooms. The story ends with the answer to that mystery, but with the ultimate goal of the Lady unclear and with Risuko still in training.

It felt like the first book in a series. Engaging, definitely YA sensibilities (Risuko doesn’t speculate about why a girl and a warrior spend time alone nor seems aware of menstruation) historically researched, fun tale with a action-oriented rather than inner emotionally oriented heroine.