Author: Cole Gibsen
Summary (taken from GoodReads): 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.
Cover impressions: It’s not unusual for a book to promise more than it can deliver. One can seldom blame the book itself for that, since so much time and effort from the publishers goes into making said book as marketable as possible. The temptation of a supernatural mash-up with Asian culture was one with immeasurable potential, as well as one that could easily slip into misguided cultural appropriation. On the bright side, such awkwardness is for the most part avoided. Unfortunately, this book is also just not very good.
Immediately, my biggest complaint with the novel was its heroine, Rileigh. Not for one moment did she register as an authentic or particularly likeable teenager. Her speech rings false on every count, as do her interactions with token gay best friend Quentin, who doesn’t rise beyond the stereotype of the make-up applying squealing, hysterical gay male. I firmly believe that this can be pulled off well and used to create an interesting, complex character but in this instance it was just lazy storytelling, and such Quentin doesn’t serve much of a purpose beyond Rileigh having someone to complain about her love life with, he barely registers. The pair read more like how bad sitcom writers imagine teenagers to speak, because apparently they’re from a different planet or something. As well as the dialogue being awkward and clunky, it’s used primarily for exposition and stretched out discussions of romance, neither of which are pulled off with any particular success.
The storytelling is so awkward; it’s as if the author had fragments of an extremely conventional plot in her mind and hastily connected them together. The plotting is extremely predictable and conventional, with far too many overused YA tropes being crossed from the check-list – the flighty, irresponsible parent who is seldom there, thus allowing the heroine to continue her life without any consequences or parental guidance, the mysterious, rude and jerky designated love interest who hides secrets and stalks the heroine to make sure she’s safe, the heroine being incredibly skilled with practically no effort as well as the most super special heroine who ever lived, and so on. It is possible to take conventional tropes and subvert them in an interesting or gripping manner, and is common when referencing specific genres or modes of storytelling (the Kill Bill series and Kung Fu Panda both pay homage and frequently reference the martial arts tales that inspired them, and do so with humour, skill and panache), but here it feels lazy. Some of the fight scenes are well put together, but Rileigh’s narration proves to be extremely irritating and distracting. While the book’s marketing is trying to push this book as one with a strong ‘kick-ass’ heroine, Rileigh is emotionally weak, makes too many rash decisions that potentially put herself and others at risk, and quickly begins to use designated love interest Kim as a crutch. It’s easy to claim a female character is ‘strong’ because she can hold her own in a fight or has the most super special magical powers ever, but such demonstrations of power mean nothing if the heroine spends the rest of the story whining about the men in her life. She can’t just be physically able, she must be emotionally so as well.
The romance itself is also a tired mish-mash of every YA romance trope I have come to despise. At one point, Kim is described by Rileigh as “a jerk… he preys on innocent girls… but then, with abs like that, why would he have to?” That moment there is pretty representative of so many issues I have with YA romance these days. Looks matter above questionable behaviour, something that Kim exhibits quite frequently, but does so because he wants to protect Rileigh (because despite being the reincarnation of one of the most powerful samurai of her time, she’s essentially a damsel-in-distress). While Rileigh, to her credit, does call him out on his behaviour, her protests do not matter since she quickly devotes herself to him, even though they barely know each other. Being in love in a previous life is all they need apparently. The get-out-of-character-development-free card was borderline insulting.
I was absolutely dreading the possibility of cultural appropriation in this book, but while there are some clunker moments, the flashbacks to 15th century Japan are infrequent. Little detail is given and one doesn’t gain a full sense of the period, the characters within or their predicaments. The constant references to honour also felt lazy, but I can begrudgingly let this pass since it’s a staple in almost every samurai or martial arts movie ever made. But that really sums up “Katana” in a nutshell; it’s lazy.
I’m sure there are many readers out there who will thoroughly enjoy this book. Indeed, at this moment in time the book has ten 5 star ratings, although one of them is by a self-admitted friend of the author’s, one from a beta-reader and five ratings with no review from authors who list Gibsen as a friend. However, this book did not connect with me on any level. The prose is as stilted as the plotting and characterisation and the samurai element is mishandled at best. Usually I leave the 1 star rating solely for books that offended me on some level, but the sheer laziness of this novel mean I cannot give it any other rating, although the fight scenes elevate it to a 1.5 for accuracy’s sake. “Katana” was as tired as the tropes it recycled over and over.
“Katana” will be available in USA on March 8th 2012. I received my ARC from NetGalley.com.