Certain features always make for a good young adult novel. The alienness of a suddenly vast world—the budding of friendships and rivalries that will define the protagonist’s future—the chance to come of age and become a young man or woman endowed with courage, skill, and purpose—the assumption of a proud mantle from an ancient tradition and the duty to vanquish a perilous evil. These touchstones have taken young imaginations captive for generations, and no wonder: They mirror the God-given callings of all young sons of Adam and daughters of Eve in this world at war. And Chris Bradford’s Young Samurai series follows this archetypical kata without missing a punch.
Set in 17th-century Japan, the books, which begin with “The Way of the Warrior,” follow the story of 13-year-old Jack Fletcher, the son of an English sea captain on a mission to explore trade routes to Japan. The sole survivor from his merchant vessel after ninja attack by night, the orphaned Jack finds himself taken under the wing of Masamoto, a legendary samurai warlord and headmaster of the Niten Ichi-Ryu school in Kyoto. Jack quickly accumulates friends and enemies from among his peers and adopted Japanese family members, but after another midnight assault by the dreaded ninja, Dokugan Ryu (Dragon-eye) Jack realizes what a precious possession he bears: his father’s navigation book, a treasure that some in Japan will kill to obtain.
Shipping off to samurai school with his foster-brother, Yamato, and the lovely young Akiko (unnecessary hint: love interest), Jack commences the grueling regimen that will transform him from a frightened rigging boy off the ruined Alexandria, to the renowned blond samurai.
Over the course of the next two books, Bradford advances his leading man to ever more taxing levels of training while the black-cloaked menace outside his samurai school launches increasingly bold attempts to acquire the navigation book and dispatch Jack. Meanwhile unrest boils throughout Japan as a rogue provincial governor threatens to spark a war in order to drive the “gaijin” (foreigners like Jack) from the empire. Only the calm diplomacy of Jack’s mentor and adopted father, Masamoto, delays the coming conflict. But as the students near the terminus of their training, it becomes clear that the headmaster and his cadre of sensei and trainees will have to join the Emperor’s forces in defense not only of the throne, but of the neck of ever foreigner in Japan.
Things reach a violent climax at the siege of Osaka Castle, which takes its inspiration, like the rest of the tale, from history. The forces seeking Jack’s destruction and the expulsion of Europeans face off against the loyal armies in a battle which claims much of what Jack has come to cherish, and forces the young samurai to prove his mettle and morality.
Bradford’s series will offer many teens their first glimpse of historic Japanese culture. And thanks to his painstaking research and ability to weave a gripping story through real-world events, seasoning the experience with authentic details, vocabulary, and first-hand knowledge of martial arts, this trilogy will keep your young reader awake for at least a couple of breathless nights. Bradford’s intimate understanding of samurai lore, weaponry, and warfare may inspire pleas for karate class enrollment, and will certainly instill in your son or daughter a newfound appreciation for this ancient order of warriors from the East.
But Bradford’s historical prowess isn’t limited to Japan. With surprisingly politically incorrect confidence, he explores the deadly hostilities between European Christians following the Reformation, and how the warring theologies of Catholicism and Protestantism fought some of their fiercest battles a world away from the cathedrals and councils of the West. And Jack Fletcher, a baptized Anglican, has to watch his every step to keep from incurring the wrath of the suspicious Jesuit missionaries in Japan. Even the arch-villain of the series, the one-eyed Dokugan Ryu, turns out to be the crony of a calculating priest who hopes to bring the island empire under papal rule.
Bradford’s treatment of Buddhism, unfortunately, tends to idealize the religion, even attributing magical powers to monks and acolytes well advanced in the art of meditation. The message his most pious characters communicate to the protagonist (and the reader) paints Buddhism’s willing syncretism as a great asset, not mentioning the fact that this faith, like all others, is a worldview whose truth claims clash with those of Christ.
The series strikes an original note. In contrast to the scenario of the wizened martial arts master pruning his bonsai trees in the suburbs of modern America, Bradford’s books place a white teenager in the midst of a foreign, confusing, and often prejudiced civilization. But veterans of young adult literature will recognize an uncanny and self-conscious resemblance throughout to a much more famous work. There’s the orphan boy-who-lived, thrust into a strange and almost magical world, hunted by a shadowy nemesis and protected by the legendary master of his art who also happens to be headmaster of a school—whose sigil is a phoenix. Oh yes, and the boy-who-lived turned samurai also has two sidekicks, a brainy female and an impulsive male, who help him foil his foe and win inter-school competitions, break the rules, and confront rivals intent on allowing only pure-blooded Japanese to become samurai. Amazingly, there are no brooms or snitches.
But despite the poorly disguised recycled plot elements from Hogwarts, the Niten Ichi-Ryu offers a compelling saga in its own right. A Japanese take on the immemorial boarding school story feels surprisingly fresh. And the themes Bradford deals with are anything but trite. Family loyalty, theology, keeping promises, winning friends, and overcoming prejudice all figure prominently in “Young Samurai.”
The series is edgy, violent, and vibrant, full of color, culture, and all the enmity, hero-worship, pubescent romance, and the love for adventure every teenager can relate to. History-making these books aren’t. But they do teach some history. And their timeless contours and refreshing picture of a bygone civilization will bring out the fighting spirit in your son or daughter for almost all the right things.G. Shane Morris is Web manager for BreakPoint and the Colson Center.