[Risuko: A Kunoichi Tale] David Kudler

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I love simplicity of this cover.

I was lucky enough to be a beta-reader for Risuko. As such, some of the things I mention in this review may be changed at the time of publishing. A huge thank you goes out to David Kudler for providing me with an advanced reading copy!

Risuko is a novel that’s set in Japan during the time of the samurai and ongoing civil war. Kano Murasaki, otherwise known as Risuko, suddenly finds herself in the middle of the conflict when a patron takes over her care. Journeying across Japan to get to their destination, Risuko has to contend with the threats that a country at war throws at her. Her arrival at Mochizuki, a training facility for miko, only adds to her confusion. As Risuko trains to be a priestess, she tries to discover the answers to her questions. Because things aren’t always what they seem.

Risuko is a strong character, who had an interesting backstory that I hope is expanded upon in further novels. I wanted to know more about her father, and even her mother, although there seemed to be no lost love between them. Risuko was the one I understood the most, naturally because the novel was in her point of view. I wish that characterization had gone a little deeper for the others, particularly Lady Chiyome and Toumi. Immediately they were presented as scary, I-don’t-know-what-she-wants-from-me Patron, and angry, girl-who-has-a-bone-to-pick-with-me Toumi. I didn’t feel that their characterization advanced further than that. Again, I hope that it changes in the next novel. For now, however, they (and the rest of the characters), had little emotional impact for me. I couldn’t quite connect with them, even when I was reading about Risuko’s changing relationship with them.

Something I really did like about the character of Risuko was the conflict that she had within herself. She is training to possibly be a killer and being taught that all living things die. Risuko had been taught by her father to never harm and certainly to never kill a living thing. Watching her struggle with this was touched on multiple times, although it was only the beginning. It seems that the second novel will really focus on this conflict, so I’m really looking forward to that. I love when characters have inner conflict like this because I think it’s fascinating.

Risuko promises to be a novel about a girl who, although her family is disgraced, can save Japan. I didn’t see much of that in the novel. It was mentioned several times, but didn’t go into too much detail. I do believe that overall, the series that comes out of Risuko will be about this. I just was expecting more, now, when that was a big part of the summary of the book. It also promises to be political, which was something I thought would be cool. Unfortunately, a lot of the things don’t happen in Risuko’s point of view. About the only thing we get from her is glimpses of a map that she doesn’t understand. I am hoping that changes in the next book.

The bulk of the novel is spent with Risuko as she trains to be a kunoichi (and learns what it is) at Mochizuki. Unfortunately, this slows down the pacing quite a bit. When they were traveling, there were opportunities for danger and action, and this slows to a snail’s pace as soon as they enter the gates of Mochizuki, which was frustrating. David Kudler built and had (more) potential for character growth when they were out on the roads, and those were the parts I found most interesting. For me, there was a huge problem of too little action between these big moments full of suspense and danger. I wish that the slowness of the training had been punctuated by something else–whether that’s a domestic problem, more lovers’ quarrels, or a visit to the town that Mochizuki looks out for. There’s only so much I want to read about how they learn how to cut apart the carcass of a cow or cut radishes into a particular size. It was repetitive in a way that it didn’t need to be, considering that Risuko could have had many more classes as she trained to be a kunoichi. However, even though it was slow, I did like how the training activities were subtle ways that they were learning how to be a kunoichi. Although none of them know what a  kunoichi is, it’s clear that they’re becoming smarter and stronger through these menial activities. I only wish that we had spent more time in their training classes in order to learn more.

Living in Japan, I noticed that the author did a lot of research. It didn’t have the problem that many set in Japan books have, namely that there’s been little to no research and the author has only thrown in –san, –sama, etc in order to make it Japanese. So I was really happy about that. The only thing I disliked, and since this is an advanced reading copy it may change, were the lack of Japanese place names. At the end of the novel, David Kudler mentions that he made that decision in order to make the book his own, but with places like Serenity province and Mochizuki in the same world,  it was a confusing muddle of Japanese and English sounding or Anglicized place names. Risuko treads that blurry line of historical fiction, where there are real people and places that are fictionalized, and fantasy, where the author adds things that are their own. It’s difficult to write this way. Where does the historical stop and the fantasy begin, and where does that allow the author to take the necessary creative license?

I’d definitely recommend this more for the younger end of the young adult spectrum rather than the end that starts tipping into the new adult spectrum. Although there are very brief mentions of sex (along the lines of “She knows how to make men happy so they talk”), I would absolutely say that it’s okay for younger readers. There is violence, but it isn’t detailed in a way that is gruesome.

3.5 stars.

Again, I received an advanced reading copy of Risuko from the author, David Kudler, as well as a copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I accidentally doubled up! Risuko will be available for purchase June 15th, 2016!

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks so much, Amanda, both for your review and your particular feedback. I’m so glad that you enjoyed Risuko!

    I have been trying to rethink the decision to translate the place names. On the one hand, I wanted to tone down the “exotic” element somewhat — the situation already provides that in spades, and I want the reader to feel at home at least somewhat. I didn’t want to translate personal names, even though most of them translate in very interesting ways (even the historical ones), but I thought place names would do well. Unfortunately, Mochizuki is both — it’s Lady Chiyome’s husband’s clan, and it’s also the name of the compound. And so it’s the one Japanese place name that I’ve used both in translation (“Full Moon”) and in romaji (Mochizuko). It’s also the place where the last two thirds of the book take place — so clearly waffling wasn’t a good choice.

    The province names are mostly written in kanji, and so I allowed myself more poetic license there — I often went with a variation on the meaning of the symbols rather than some translation of the place name’s pronunciation.

    If it were up to you, would you rather I leave the place names translated (i.e., “Pineshore,” “Midriver Island,” “Dark Letter Province”) or return them to their Japanese pronunciation (Hamamatsu, Kawanakajima, Shinano)?

    Again, thanks!

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