Although the ninja boom turned ninja bust in the late 80s, there have been little sparks that keep the spirit alive. Too many people just use ninjas as an ironic punchline to a gag these days but now and then something comes along that just nails it; that captures the essence of the great ninja stories and packs a modern punch of serious fun. Thomas Pluck’s novel Blade of Dishonor is one of these things.
Blade of Dishonor’s hero, whom I hope will return for more stories, is ‘Rage Cage’ Reeves, a marine who comes home from Iraq to Minnesota and finds things have changed. Recession’s hit hard, the auto plant has closed and everyone’s itching for a fight. With nowhere to go, Reeves moves in to his grandfather Butch’s pawn shop (that specialises in militaria) but things look bleak. Jobs are thin on the ground, money’s tight and the hardass hare-lipped town Sheriff has an old grudge against him that just won’t quit.
Reeves thinks his prayers are answered when a mysterious Japanese businessman offers to buy the shop and everything in it for a generous sum but Grandpa Butch knows what Mr Takehito really wants; an antique sword that hangs above the counter. The “Honjo Masamune”. We soon learn that both Takehito and Butch have made blood promises to guard the blade with their lives and when Butch is brutally slain, the responsibility passes to Reeves, thus setting in motion a breakneck intercontinental chase. Oh yeah, one more thing. Takehito’s a ninja and he has an army of highly-trained shadow warriors on his side so it’s not exactly a fair fight… One man against a ninja empire!
Pluck is a writer who understands the mechanics of pulp fiction and this is so fundamental when you’re writing a story about ninjas and cage-fighters on the trail of a magic sword. He treats the subject matter with respect and creates not just a thrilling action narrative but one that’s full of believable, endearing characters. Reeves and Butch are the heart of the thing but even more entertaining are Tara and Mikio, their uneasy allies in this. Tara is a local waitress who falls for Reeves and turns out to be a genuine badass, a redheaded rock’n’roller who drives her gold Oldsmobile Toronado at ninja-killing speeds. Mikio is a shady Yakuza whose unclear allegiances and filthy mouth provide suspense and big laughs respectively. All four of them are refreshing, original characters whose dialogue is gleefully tough, like much of Pluck’s prose.
The action scenes here are page-turning scorchers; hard-line ninja mayhem with Pluck knowing how to balance his fight choreography with imaginative similes. He writes the language of violence with a grin on his face in paragraphs like this one, describing the different types of strikes to the testicles:
“Grazing blows that caught up with you three seconds later. Solid shots that felt like your nuts were pinballs bouncing off your internal organs. And the worst kind, which set a disco ball of lights spinning in your head while your spirit left your body, as if embarrassed to be seen with you.”
That said, even though there are plenty of cool fight scenes in this that are fun to read, you feel the ramifications of every punch, slash or gunshot like it’s real. In particular, the sections about war are compassionate and harrowing, Pluck drawing distinctions between the joy of a good fight and the grim realities of mass destruction.
There’s a lot to love about the book because it’s clearly written with so much of it. The research into Japanese history – from the ninjas and samurai of the Tokugawa Shogunate to the present day – is impressive and Pluck shares his knowledge in a way that’s passionate and enjoyable rather than feeling like laborious exposition (something Eric Van Lustbader could learn from!). Pluck also has a knack for creating a sense of place, from the industrial bleakness of small-town Minnesota, to the spiritual isolation of remote Pacific islands to the neon bustle of present-day Tokyo. These provide exciting backdrops to a plot that, while simple, is an adrenaline-fuelled modern ninja classic with bags of hardboiled heart.
If, like me, you miss the good old days of ninjas past, you’ve got to get yourself a copy of this. Blade of Dishonor is up there with the Scott Adkins films as being some of the best 21st century ninjing you’ll come across.