[Well, there’s no getting around the fact that this update is several years behind schedule – full apology for my absence at the end of the review, since I’ve kept everyone waiting long enough.]
When they were but a child, The Ronin was told that any seeking to master the sword had to be willing to “give up all else.” Despite hating the man that gave that lesson, our main character actually exemplified this depressingly to the letter; they wandered the land, never forming connections with others beyond ‘connecting’ a sword into a vital organ. In return they became a master of the blade, damn near unstoppable even without the horrifying supernatural power lurking within themselves, but also completely alone. That changed when they met the pint sized shugenja who would go on to be their employer, and they slowly allowed themselves to actually care about – and be cared for – by others. We as players get a front row seat to how much they come to appreciate their friends and all their companionship, even as The Ronin continues to try denying it to themselves.
It is therefore a real tone setter at the beginning of Book 4 when the Ronin finds themselves once again completely alone. Having left the rest of the party behind for a myriad of heart-wrenching reasons, our main character stands isolated in the midst of the valleys and mountain paths of the frigid north, a katana their only companion. Even worse, the grimness of their mission hangs around their neck like a millstone, and the inevitably of the clash with the person they once cared for the most stretches out before them.
Book 4, as written by Devon Connell, starts off bleak and indeed only gets bleaker. It does, however, offer a unique perspective on some old characters, and indeed we actually get quite a lot of time to examine just what exactly makes our main character tick. The Ronin has travelled to the north to reclaim the dark power of the Jigoku Itto-Ryo, but in doing so we are afforded a chance to see many parts of their past that they have been trying so hard to move past. It is quite a fascinating way for the events to play out, though the book doesn’t escape some issues with pacing and the way certain characters are utilized. Of course, to talk about the good and the bad, we first need to actually get the review underway.
So, clear your eyes ready to look to the past, stand up straight to carry the weight of those haunting regrets, and let’s cut right to the heart of Samurai of Hyuga, Book 4.
Let’s start, as always, with a look at some of the positives.
Book 4 continues the series’ effort to make each leg of the Ronin’s journey feel drastically unique to the other steps. This is the first time in the series where the Ronin has to spend a considerable time alone, rather than just having short bursts of going solo while still working closely with the others from the main party. While we do naturally run into other characters, the book never pretends that we’re going to be forming another travelling band with the new arrivals; they’re important, but both we and The Ronin are under no illusion that they’re going to replace the old group. To that end, the book has some moments of an engaging atmosphere of loneliness, made more pronounced by the loving descriptions of the wide but desolate expanses afforded by northern Hyuga.
None of this is to say the new characters are not interesting or engaging in their own right. Over the course of the book, The Ronin runs into a variety of entertaining scenarios with the new characters, including an engaging scene that forms a contrast to their beliefs about the way of the sword and what it means to wield it. One brand new character in particular does a fantastic job of providing some much need levity to the grim scenarios of the book without sacrificing an actually sympathetic characterisation.
It is evident that this book successfully balances the extreme grimness of the events within with just enough lightheaded moments to keep a reader’s head above the water, a trend it shares from its predecessors. Likewise, the overall writing for the book remains snappy and charismatic, with characters having a strong presence whenever they appear on the page and bouncing off each other with the engaging dialogue that the other books have already well established. We get to some exceedingly enjoyable moments and exchanges throughout the run of the book without having to slow down or divert too much of our attention away from the main plot.
Speaking of which, the main objective this time around feels more personal to the main character, and thus it feels like the reader can afford to get invested in the proceedings. While the demons from the other books made entertaining villains to oppose, they also felt a little removed from the characterisation of The Ronin themselves in terms of personal connections. Make no mistakes, they made nice foils and obstacles to place against The Ronin; Shiroyama was a neat way to dredge up The Ronin’s criminal past and allow them to overcome the lingering lust of coin from their assassin days; Roderico forced The Ronin to have to actually think with their head and have a pseudo encounter with their long dead teacher; and Shatao and his men made a good example of how the samurai code could be corrupted, highlighting just how much The Ronin acted more like a proper samurai by accident compared to the supposed real deal. All these villains had their place, but they also had little connection to The Ronin beyond their overall theming and symbolism, so it’s refreshing that our goal in this book is purely personal. Likewise, the fact that achieving the main goal of the book will test the main character emotionally and spiritually made for a neat addition to the already heavy physical strain they inevitably come under.
Connecting with the fact that this is a more personal part of The Ronin’s journey, another positive point is that we get to find out a lot more on how our main character grew up, and learn a lot about both their teacher and Jun/ko. In particular, we actually get some extended flashbacks showing how the day to day interactions between the three played out, for better and or worse. It’s a fascinating show of just how brutal the main character’s training was, and why Jun/ko became a person they can’t ever be fully disconnected with. After reading how much influence the two had on our Ronin becoming the person they are, it’s great to finally see so much info about Jun/ko and Gensai, and how it all weaves together to form the sordid tapestry of The Ronin’s life story. While we’ve been fed some bits of the sorry tale throughout the other books, to see it played out in such a greater level of detail in this one feels pretty satisfying, if only because it becomes that much easier to finally understand The Ronin’s own pretty conflicted feelings about their upbringing and the previously unresolved question of what they actually feel for Jun/ko.
Indeed, Jun/ko is another highlight of the book, since they are given the sufficient breathing room to finally start exploring their character in detail, and there’s even some evidence that there’s something resembling a method to all the madness. While a lot of this comes through the extended flashback sequences peppered throughout the book, they actually have a pretty key role in the book’s present time, though to say any more would definitely wander straight into spoiler territory. I think it’s fair to say that fans of Jun/ko would be extremely pleased with the book, and it may at least provide a few talking point to consider for those aren’t the biggest fans, for better or worse.
However, it’s not exactly all sunshine and sake.
Let’s just get the main one out of the way, because everyone knows that I’ve banged on about it before and am inevitably going to do so again; I am really not the biggest fan of the pacing of the book. This will likely sound somewhat familiar to the readers who are even semi-familiar with the reviews of the other books, since the subject of pacing is something that I’ve brought up in every darn review. And I regret to say the issues I had with Book 3 remain the same; I think the story moves at a rapid speed that ends up hurting it as often as helping it. Yes, the increased focus on getting to the next step of the journey means that we don’t linger overlong in one place or one character’s plot, and therefore it always feels like we are at least moving forwards. On the other hand, it feels like we’re zooming past characters and subjects that are desperately in need of additional time to really come into their own.
A good example of this actually comes from the new characters I brought up before; while the book still makes some time for the reader to get adjusted to them, it still feels like we’ve barely met some of them before we’re moving onto the next point, often leaving that character on the backburner as we do so. At the risk of brushing against spoiler territory, there’s a character that actually turns out to be more than they first appear after we met them fairly early in the opening act of the book, but because we only got to interact with them properly once or twice before the big reveal at around the mid-point of the story, the surprise isn’t as effective as it could have been.
The real loss caused by this hasty sense of pacing is the fact that some of the finer points of the main character’s development also feel like they’re being sped through. While we can’t exactly go into specific and spoiler-level details here, there are some pretty dark facts that get revealed about everyone’s favourite washed up Ronin, but the book doesn’t necessarily do a spectacular job at actually resolving them in a satisfying way. This is probably the most ‘down to interpretation’ part of the review, since everyone is going to have a slightly different feeling on what exactly is the level of detail that these ideas need. For me personally, I can’t help but feel like the relevant section of the book could have benefited from at least a little more time to resolve what was being revealed and how it would impact on the main character. I understand that I’m asking for time to be given to plots in an instalment that is already jam-packed, and thus what I’m asking for might be beyond the pale, however I couldn’t shake the feeling that certain parts of the book were simply not given the time they really needed.
Another problem, and indeed one of it’s more major ones, is indeed Jun/ko themselves. I stick by my original statement that giving Jun/ko a more considerable presence in the story was a highlight of the book, mostly because the interactions between them and The Ronin remain unique and interesting despite how ghastly the context often is. However there remains a little bit of problem, one that becomes a bit hard to ignore after a while. And at the risk of sounding like damn broken record, I think the pace of Jun/ko’s character is oddly unbalanced. The previous books established that they were damn near completely psychotic, to the point where they were willing to murder anyone who was even mildly close (emotionally or physically) to The Ronin, and while that isn’t un-true, it definitely feels like this books runs this aspect of their character back a little.
There is some justification to this, and time is spent showing that their obsession to The Ronin isn’t the be-all and end-all facet to their character, but it feels a little unearned. One of the most standout moments with Jun/ko from previously in the series is the scene where they crave their freakin’ name into the main character’s stomach, with the strong implication that they might have reached a (worryingly literal) climatic high by doing so. While the information we learn during this book helps to keep Jun/ko sympathetic, I’m not sure I absolutely buy the character arch they go through during the course of the book, or at least the speed of which it happens. Like many parts of the book 4, it feels like a good idea that wasn’t given the sufficient room to actually occur naturally, and therefore comes off as a bit rushed.
There is one final problem to consider. I mentioned before that, due to this being a solo trip for The Ronin, the new location allows us to be introduced to completely new characters more organically due to the story not having to drag the large main group around. While this is true, the story does occasionally cut away to check in on what’s happening with the scattered members of the main group, all in various different locals. This is not entirely new, as the older books did indeed cut away to see what certain secondary characters were up to, mostly (and maybe appropriately for this review) Jun/ko. However, with our main group scattered to the four winds and everyone moving in different directions, this can sometimes feel like we’re having our attention pulled in a lot of different directions at once, and it sometimes feels like what we’re seeing is delivered pretty bluntly and more on the tell side of ‘show don’t tell.’
For example, a character whose fate had been left pretty ambiguous for a book or so now rather abruptly reappears, and is rather hurriedly reconnected to the on goings of the plot, though in a mostly distant manner. I understand that many times this occurs is mainly to set up things that are going to be important for future books, and it would be difficult to go through the scenes in a natural way because they often take place miles away from the main plot. However, it feels like it occurs an unusually high number of times throughout Book 4, to the point of perhaps undermining it’s own intentions: there are things that probably could have been held off on being revealed until the next book, where they would likely have more relevancy, instead of just pulling off the sheet on the potential surprise now a whole book earlier.
I think that’s enough complaints from me, though. Let’s conclude.
Book 4 of Samurai of Hyuga is definitely a work of impressive highs and drastic lows, though it thankfully leans more to the former than the latter. While the problems it has are pretty aggravating, when the book is doing something good, it’s REALLY good. And even when you have to wrestle with the somewhat manic pacing at times, the series’ staple of engaging characters and fun dialogue does a great deal to help you through the less than stellar moments. Most of all, the main plot is carried with its usual intrigue and style, and it remains fun to try and guess where exactly this crazy trip ends.
I guess the only remaining question is; would I recommend getting Book 4? I would say yes, but with the caveat that if you weren’t the biggest fan of how hurried book 3 felt (like myself), you might have to prepare yourself for occasionally feeling like you’re being dragged around the plot at a similar speed for this latest entry. Other than that, Book 4 remains the katana swinging, sake binging and soul searching adventure that the rest of Samurai of Hyuga established itself as, and thus definitely worth a chance.
Whew, I really had to clear away some dust on this blog, eh? This is usually the part where I explain where the heck I’ve been, but the answer would take almost half as long as this darn review. Main point is, I had to ask if I could maintain the old upload rate while still maintaining a level of focus on the writing for personal projects and work, and I found that something had to give somewhere. Still, I shouldn’t have up and abandoned this blog like I did, and for that I apologise. Updates are going to remain sporadic, I think, but hopefully I can get a good enough piece together to put up here every once in a while, rather than just letting this place gather dust.
For Samurai of Hyuga specifically, as always, we’ll do a follow up ‘spoiler talk’ in the near future, just so we can go over some finer points about the plot and characters. However, also as always, it’s going to be spoiler city, so if you want to avoid that, make sure to either have played the book 4 for yourself, or at least use your best discretion.
In any case, take care.