A review by JC Kang
As a fan of epic fantasy with diverse casts, I always saw Ryan Kirk’s Nightblade atop the Asian Myths and Legends charts on Amazon, reminding me I needed to finish it. Though it had been sitting on my Kindle for years, and I had tried several times to make it through the first chapter, it wasn’t until I discovered audiobooks that I found the time to make it to its end.
In all, I was not disappointed. Set in Kirk’s Three Kingdoms, roughly based on Japan’s Warring States period, Nightblade is an engaging, oftentimes dark and sad story with compelling characters. However, it could stand to be better executed.
As I found with Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, Nightblade has a Star Wars feel to it. A young prodigy, gifted in a Force-like power known as The Sense; an older mentor with a secret shame, who confers an heirloom weapon on our hero; a spunky young woman with a good head on her shoulders, who is our hero’s love interest; and a Sense-gifted antagonist who shared a past with the mentor.
The central premise is that the Three Kingdoms were once one, advised by two groups gifted with The Sense. The Dayblades channel the Sense toward healing, while the Nightblades use it for combat. Sometime in the past, the kingdom was sundered into three, and the Nightblades were blamed, hunted down, and wiped out. The Dayblades retreated to their monasteries, existing simultaneously outside of, and intertwined across the governments of Three Kingdoms. They wander the lands in search of those gifted in the Sense, and ensure they learn the arts of the Dayblades. Despite the parallels to the Jedi and Sith, I found the worldbuilding to be creative and presented in such a way that it didn’t lag the story’s pace.
Where Nightblade shines is the three main characters, who we watch grow from tragic experiences as young children to relatedly damaged young adults. All have compelling stories that made me want to turn the page and find out what happened next. Ryuu is the young prodigy, whose parents are slain at the start of the story. He is taken in by the mentor Shigeru, and trained in the ways of the Nightblades in a remote part of the kingdom.
Moriko loves the forest (I would assume her name actually means “forest child”) because she can Sense (see what I did there?) all its teeming life. She is taken from her home by a small-minded monk and brought to a monastery to train in the legal ways of The Sense. She shows a greater talent for The Sense, which puts her in the crosshairs of the monastery leadership; but also allows her to train with the mysterious Orochi (more on him later).
Finally, the smart and beautiful Takako, who has no connection to The Sense, is sold into a brothel as a precocious ten-year-old. The storytelling is so well-done here, because as a reader, we see it coming, and the author does a wonderful job of tugging at our emotional strings. In a way reminiscent of Memoirs of a Geisha, trained and cultivated by the Madame to inflame men’s interest and ratchet up her virgin price.
One young man who won’t be buying her is Ryuu. However, Shigeru takes him to the brothel, and the two young people share an instant connection. When the Madame is forced to change her plans due to the Big Bad villain of the story, the plot is fully put in motion. All three of the main characters’ destinies collide, and their interactions feel authentic and unique.
The secondary characters also have a depth that make them feel real: from Shigeru’s haunting past affecting his decisions, to the Madame, to the brutality of a general who is motivated by revenge. Particularly well-portrayed is Orochi, something of an assassin, driven by a mission like Captain Ahab to Moby Dick. Yet despite this obsession, he is ultimately both a father figure to Moriko, and an honorable man.
All that said, the story suffers from several shortcomings. The characters’ internal narratives tend to repeat in a way that feels more like bad editing than narrative voice. The rhythm of the writing often feels awkward due to the repetition of the same words; yet the author uses multiple synonyms for “said,” which often felt forced to me. The author also does a lot of summarizing instead of showing.
Finally, with a story about people who can use a type of magic to fight more effectively, I had expected vibrantly choreographed fight scenes. However, the combat is not particularly descriptive.
Despite these issues, the characters do shine through, and Kirk does a great job of manipulating reader emotions with fairly simple prose. For the quality of the work, and his amazing potential in his storytelling, I will send him to a secret island to further refine his craft. I rate Nightblade 7.8632 throwing stars on my ultra-secret, completely objective scale.
After Note: I do feel the narrator, Andrew Tell, negatively affected my enjoyment of the story. He does have a wonderful range of voices; but I cringed at his pronunciation of Japanese names (especially with Moriko), and felt that in some places, his tone sounded almost snide.
*This review was first published on Fantasy Faction and has been republished here with permission of the reviewer.