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In the Service of Samurai
by Gloria Oliver
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Reviewed by: Po Wong

You might say that this 310-page adventure novel can be summarized in one sentence: Lowly peasant boy undergoes unusual adventures that test his character and winds up achieving a greater destiny than he could ever have imagined. While this is a hoary plotline used in countless classics, author Gloria Oliver succeeds in fleshing it out in her own way, thereby producing a fresh and enjoyable story for young readers. Oliver starts by giving the tale an exotic setting: medieval Japan. Although nothing in Oliver's biography indicates an extended residence in that country, the author manages to depict a Japan that has the feel of authenticity to it. Perhaps this stems from her self-professed enthusiasm for Japanese comics and animation.

She also introduces a likeable and realistically-drawn protagonist: Toshi, a teenaged orphan who has been apprenticed to a mapmaker. Our young hero-to-be considers himself lucky to have been taught the rare trade of cartography. Within the first five pages of the book, though, he finds his world turned upside down when a mysterious warrior (samurai), smelling of the sea, walks into his master's shop one night and asks for maps to some nearby islands. This wouldn't be so unusual -- except that the "customer" turns out to be a skeleton, specifically an undead samurai, Lord Asako. What's more, Asako then proceeds to coerce Toshi onto his ghost ship (complete with a skeleton crew, so to speak) to help him complete the mission he was on when he died.

From here on, the story incorporates elements of the supernatural (ethereal temple priests, demon ninja), as well as of traditional adventure (swordplay, chase scenes) as Toshi develops from reluctant prisoner to nascent hero. To her credit, Oliver keeps things realistic (to the extent that things can be realistic in what is kind of a sword-and-sorcery story, Japanese-style--a mixture typical of "manga", or Japanese comics): Toshi does not magically become a fierce swordsman or brilliant strategist. Instead, although we see Toshi growing up in the course of the story, he still remains a boy on the cusp of manhood, full of both innocence and insecurity.

The story is fast-paced in the beginning and in the exciting ending, but some parts in between do drag on too long. While many of the chapters are no doubt necessary to delineate the characters better or to move the plot forward and provide drama, the novel would probably read even better if trimmed by at least 50 or so pages.

The length of the book isn't a major problem, though, particularly since you will probably enjoy the company of the cast of characters. Aside from Toshi himself, the author does a good job making us identify and empathize with the determined Lord Asako, his gentle geisha Miko, who takes Toshi under her wing, and the feisty Himiko, a princess who appears in the later part of the book. The dialogue, too, is well written, and the genuine sound of it helps to make the characters more real.

In both the narrative and the dialogues, Oliver's references and descriptions of various facets of Japanese history, culture, and tradition are woven finely into the fabric of the story. She thus manages to be informative without being distracting or didactic -- while presenting, at the same time, a pleasant diversion for her readers.

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