Friday, 12 August 2011

Review: Young Samurai: The Ring of Fire - Chris Bradford

Extent: 320 pages
Publisher: Puffin
Pub Date: 4th August 2011

Jack Fletcher faces his toughest challenge yet.

After a snowstorm forces him to take shelter, Jack comes across a village in need of protection from raiding mountain bandits. Torn between moving on or helping, Jack is persuaded to stay and fight their cause.

But Jack is the first and only samurai to do so. Now he must enlist other warriors to the village's aid before the bandits return to steal their harvest. No easy task when the reward is so little and he is a foreigner. If only he had his friends to call on…

Using the Ring of Fire, can Jack overpower the bandits and win?

In The Book of Five Rings episodes of Young Samurai, I’ve really enjoyed exploring the rest of Japan with Jack: finding out what exists beyond the walls of the samurai school and meeting an ever unique cast of new characters. That being said, I have to say I was gushing with excitement to see some of the old characters make a reappearance in The Ring of Fire. I’m not going to tell you which ones they are but I can honestly say I was on the verge of tears to see them again, just when Jack needed his friends the most. I’ve never done that before with a book – feel genuine joy when fictional characters come back into my life – so it really is a testament to how Chris Bradford sews these unique and unforgettable people in the fabric of your soul when they’ve never actually existed.

Despite the reappearance of old friends and the forging of new friendships, The Ring of Fire is a real test for Jack to stand on his own. Before, there have always been older samurai or ninja giving him orders, advising him what to do and generally saving his butt at the crucial moment but now that Jack’s only allies are all teenage samurai with as much if not less battle experience than him, the task of leadership falls on his head. It’s daunting at first but as a dedicated Jack fan, you know he has it in him and at last all his training and all the lessons in strategy that he has learned throughout the preceding five books come together and once again his abilities and his bushido inspire the instant and unconditional loyalty in those around him.

As I’ve said in reviews of previous Young Samurai books, you learn something new about 17th century Japan in every book and in The Ring of Fire it is the Japanese class system that is highlighted and with it the cracks in the system are shown. I’ve put a lot of faith in bushido so far but in fact it seems that most samurai have never heard of the concept of the way of the warrior. Their stomachs are fed by the peasants of Japan yet the farmers are seen to be too lowly to bother fighting for, they only want to fight for the wealthy to earn great rewards. They want to pick and chose their fights, yet Jack, who has been the victim of relentless prejudice, is the first one to know no prejudice when someone cries for help. I think the greatest lesson in The Ring of Fire is that no desperate cause is not worth fighting for, no matter how lowly the desperate are. The greatest glory is that which comes from no glory. That is why Jack is the embodiment of bushido and through his friendship others come to know the true meaning of the way of the warrior. I think that’s why Chris Bradford is so determined to keep killing off some of my favourite characters, because sacrifice is the ultimate act of a person who has come to know the true meaning of what it is to be samurai. An honourable death is the only way they can become true heroes – and live forever.

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