Tuesday, 31 May 2016

'Risuko: A Kunoichi Tale', by David Kudler

Title: Risuko: A Kunoichi Tale (Seasons of the Sword #1)
Author(s): David Kudler
Release Date: 15th June 2016
Publisher: Stillpoint Digital Press
Genre: YA, Historical
Source: NetGalley (ARC)

Synopsis:
My name is Kano Murasaki, but most people call me Risuko. Squirrel.

I am from Serenity Province, though I was not born there.

My nation has been at war for a hundred years, Serenity is under attack, my family is in disgrace, but some people think that I can bring victory. That I can be
a very special kind of woman.

All I want to do is climb.


Though Japan has been devastated by a century of civil war, Risuko just wants to climb trees. Growing up far from the battlefields and court intrigues, the fatherless girl finds herself pulled into a plot that may reunite Japan -- or may destroy it. She is torn from her home and what is left of her family, but finds new friends at a school that may not be what it seems.

Magical but historical, Risuko follows her along the first dangerous steps to discovering who she truly is.

Historical adventure fiction appropriate for young adult and middle-grade readers.

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As I seem to always be in a constant search for diverse fiction, I could not help but request this book because, Japan. Especially, historical fiction set in Japan. As my knowledge of Japan's history doesn't stretch far off that infamous viral video, I really wanted to get sucked into this book and learn even more about a country that has always fascinated me.

I could have probably watched that video a few more times on loop, and achieved the same result.

'Risuko: A Kunoichi Tale' is told from Risuko's perspective, but not as the story happens. She is going through the run down of events from the 'future', at a point that the reader can't quite pinpoint: it could be years or even days after the end of the book. I'm personally a fan of this sort of narrative; it allows the inclusion of foreshadowing very naturally into the story, and at least I know for sure that the protagonist makes it for long enough to have the chance to relay what happened...

While this book has been categorized as Young Adult, I couldn't help but feel that it is mostly a Middle Grade read. Most characters fit into the younger section of YA (around twelve, thirteen years old) but the writing is definitely at the level of accessibleness of Middle Grade. There are one or two scenes that entail killing animals and references to people's deaths as well, so if you are considering giving this book to a younger reader I would recommend giving it a read through first to make sure it is something you are comfortable with them reading, but I personally felt like it is more Middle Grade than Young Adult.

The biggest praise I can offer this book is how believable a voice it portrays. The protagonist's age is never mentioned in the book, but from my reading I could estimate an age that then, upon researching, matched up with what the author intended. It's not easy for a child's/teenager's voice to come through as authentic when written by older authors (not trying to be ageist here, but it is a fact that people's experiences through life change with the times, and what was a typical childhood 30 years ago might not be as relatable to children today), but here I was convinced. Even if Risuko is growing up in sixteenth century rural Japan, a time I know next to nothing about, I could at least believe her to be a child and relate to her struggles.

This is helped along with the (often repeated) mentions of the girls not yet having achieved puberty. As talking about menstruation seems to still be taboo for a lot of authors, I appreciated seeing it be included in this story in such a prominent way. As Risuko and the other children arrive at the 'school', they are presented with a building where women move into when they are in their 'moon time'. While I will not dwell into the implications of separating women from everyone when during their periods (considering when the book is set), I do believe this was almost transformed into a plot device. It is mentioned way too often, and at points it transposes into a stereotypical portrayal of menstruation, based on misconceptions (for example, all the women in the school have their periods at the exact same time. Down to starting on the same day). At one point a male character says that women on their 'moon time' only want to 'complain, eat or sleep', and I had to contain myself from taking this against the male author of this book. Not all women have the same experience with their menstruation, and while this might apply to a lot of women, it is not a universal law. It does not completely negate the fact that it is something extensively talked about when most authors refuse to ever mention it, and for the target audience of this book I believe it's a good plus.

While these individual elements of the book set it up to be a compelling, interesting read, I found it to be incredibly slow paced. As I now re-read the synopsis, I realize how much it really summarizes the book. As in, you could probably go to the second book in the series having read only that and still not miss much. There are threads that are weaved into the plot but never picked up again. For example, there are mentions of Risuko being somehow 'special', but it is never disclosed in this book why. There is a mystery subplot embedded into the story to try and make it more interesting, but its importance is not quite built up until it is unsatisfactorily resolved. This leads to a few inconsistencies throughout the book (mostly reasoning behind a lot of the characters' actions), and what kept me reading was mostly the protagonist's voice. Even with that, I could not help but having a feeling of 'is that it?' when I turned the last page.

There is an entire war being set up in this book with no real advance into the actual events of it. As this is the first in a series I understand not having everything happening in the same book, but not having nothing. This is a very, very long winded introduction to a series, which becomes readable mostly as a coming of age story of a girl that is thrust out of the world she knows into one she is told she belongs in. I drew a lot of parallels in this aspect with 'Memoirs of a Geisha', and while it does not really compare in terms of quality, it does follow a lot of the same steps characterization wise.

Entering into the romantic side of the plot, as the book reads mostly as Middle Grade, it is not an aspect that is as heavily relied on. There are hints here and there to attraction between the children and one case of forbidden love in the adults, but what worried me is how there seems to be an establishment of a problematic relationship between Risuko... and an older Samurai. Again, taking into consideration the historical nature of the setting, this is something that would have been more natural then, but presenting it to contemporary audiences (when it could have been developed a variety of different ways and it is not immediately necessary to advance the plot), especially younger audiences, can become quite tricky.

In the end, 'Risuko: A Kunoichi Tale' is a coming of age story set in a world ruled by men but with a very needed side of female empowerment. You will find the setting and the prose very believable, but if you are looking for a fast paced, adventure filled story, then this will probably not be for you.

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