You know what it’s like in late winter, when it feels like the sun will never return – and then it does? That feeling of light and warmth is exactly the feeling you get when reading a Sandy Fussell book.
The first book in this series is Samurai Kids: White Crane. This is the second book, and the series is fully written.
I know (because of talking to Fussell and her editor, Sue Walker) that White Crane was originally a standalone book. Sometimes, an author makes a wonderful, shining, unique thing and is then asked to write a sequel – and the sequels are all merely good.
This hasn’t happened here. If anything, Owl Ninja is even more shining and wonderful and unique than White Crane. The story begins as war is about to commence – a war that will involve large numbers of Samurai kids from the various ryu schools. Sensei Ki-Yaga and his students of the Cockroach Ryu set out on a journey to the emperor to ask him to prevent the war. The evil and ambitious Dragon Ryu leader sets out to stop them. And there’s one more problem: Sensei Ki-Yaga has long since been sentenced to death by the emperor, and risks his head to face him.
The story is great, the action is good, and the characters shine. Illustrator Rhian Next James is lovely, too. Despite all the tension (and the real risk of violent death), these books have an unwavering core of friendship and love that makes even me believe the world is filled with goodness and peace and hope for as long as the book lasts. But as always, the thing that takes this book from fantastic to sublime is the style. The only way to show you what I mean is to show you what I mean.
A samurai’s sword is his most treasured possession. He wears it on his belt but he holds it against his heart and it sings into his soul. My sword shines bright and sings loud enough for Onaku to hear. Even now, when it should be listening politely.
“May I borrow your weapon, Niya?” Onaku asks. “I need to make a point.”
We’re all paying close attention now. The point of a sword is very sharp.
Carefully, I draw the blade and pass it to the Sword Master. I keep the cutting edge inwards because if I overbalance and fall, Onaku might be killed.
“It is bad manners to face the blade outwards,” Sensei taught us. “It is even worse manners to slice a friend in two.”
[Mrs Onaku] opens a screen door, delicately painted with samurai battle scenes. All the warriors have Onaku’s face but none of them have his stomach. Mrs Onaku is a skilled painter and a loving wife.
Onaku knows how lucky he is.
“I am no good at Zazan,” he told us. “When I close my eyes, her face fills my thoughts. Until there is no room for NOTHING.”
Sensei plants his staff in the soft ground. “Dead people are usually very polite. They like to say hello and talk about the weather.”
Mikko giggles and nudges Yoshi but Sensei doesn’t laugh. “Some ghosts play tricks because they get bored,” he says. “Death is monotonous. But the spirits seek the truth. Their sense of honour is not dead, only their body.”
“You talk to ghosts?” Kyoko’s mouth drops open.
“All the time. I am very old and many of my closest friends have died. It would be rude to ignore them.”