Posted on December 10, 2008 by Billzilla
I’m frankly a sucker for many things — ghost stories and samurai films among them. On discovering the book In the Service of Samurai by Gloria Oliver, I was pleased to discover that two of my passions had been rolled into one package.
In the Service of Samuari tells the story of a young apprentice mapmaker, Chizuson Toshiro or “Toshi,” who is purchased from his master to act as navigator for a strange samurai with an even stranger ship and crew. Cursed and betrayed in life, the undead Samurai and his ghostly men must wander the sea until they have completed their mission. In the end, only Toshi’s wits and determination can help them see it through. The tension of the story grows as Toshi learns to accept his situation. As he discovers more about his new masters, he feels sympathy for them in their fate, and a desire to help them find peace grows within him. In the end, new and unexpected obstacles block his path, and he must use not only his sword but his courage and tenacity to overcome them.
Oliver deftly creates a likeable character in Toshi, who’s only real hope at first is that he doesn’t get killed. As time passed, Toshi grows into his role, becoming less of a boy and more of a man. This isn’t some corny, coming-of-age story, but rather a tale about duty – both to one’s self and to others — and honor. We learn a little about the ghostly crew and their fate, but even they are unaware of the traitor in their midst, one who sacrificed everything to make sure the crew’s mission doesn’t succeed, and who now sees Toshi as an interloper who can negate that sacrifice.
I have to admit I found this a slow read in the early going, even setting it aside for a while. I’m glad I came back to it; it’s akin to classic Japanese folk tales, and the ending, while perhaps a bit predictable to some, is no less enjoyable for it, and even brought a tear to my eye. As the plot develops, the hard, two-dimensional edges are worn smooth, revealing sophisticated characters with complex motivations. Ms. Oliver also gives us a romantic glimpse into the life of everyday people in Feudal Japan without glossing over the cruelty and oppression that also existed.
My only complaints with this book are mostly minor and cosmetic. Again, the story started slowly for me, and in the early going the characters seemed clichéd and wooden. Much like Toshi, my patience and perseverance were handsomely rewarded. The cover art is amateurish, detracting from the first-glance appeal; don’t let that meagre first impression stand in the way of a good story.
In the Service of Samurai is a classic Japanese ghost story that more than just aficionados of the genre will appreciate. I highly recommend this book and am looking forward to reading more of Gloria Oliver’s work.
Review by Bill Bodden