Book: Sisters of the Sword

Sisters of the SwordSisters of the Sword
Maya Snow
2008 (Working Partners/HarperCollins)

Sisters of the Sword is the first in a series about two sisters, the daughters of a great Samurai leader, who become great samurai themselves. The sisters, Kimi and Hana, watch as their father and older brothers are brutally murdered by their uncle and then the two flee for their lives. They end up at the school where new samurai warriors are trained and, disguised as boys, beg to join it as students. The master says that the school is full, but grants them positions as servants which would allow them to train and learn alongside the students as long as their work got done. In this way, the two girls train in secret forming plans for the future.

The story this book tells is incredibly intriguing. The plot is complicated and many threads are left for the author to pick up in later books. What makes it so interesting is the political intrigue, various codes (bushi, noble and and likely others that are less well defined for us as readers, at least at this point), and the deceptions being overlaid on top of each other in varying ways. While the crime of the murders itself seems fairly straightforward, the fallout from it is anything but. Kimi, our narrator, is focused on the internal goings on of the dojo (the samurai school), but the world outside is clearly still moving and Snow does a great job of making that clear. In the meantime, Kimi and Hana are trying hard to come to terms with what is, for them, a very personal loss and figure out what they are going to do next.

Kimi starts and ends the book with messages from the future, reminding us that she survived all of this. She lays on pretty thick, however, that much was lost along the way (it is unclear if even Hana is still with her). These messages may end up being very meaningful for the series as a whole, but in terms of this book by itself, they seem out of place. Not only do they not make much sense in the context of this book by itself, but they simply seem there to remind you that she is a good warrior. The story shows us that clearly so Snow had no need to tell it to us explicitly. I think that I would have enjoyed Kimi’s journey more if I hadn’t known that she would succeed in becoming a samurai from the outset. Some mystery is a good thing.

I would definitely read a sequel to this book because I did find the plot interesting and I liked Kimi as a character, however I found this book rather frustrating. It very much does not stand alone, which can be annoying. I want some resolution of something at the end of a book, even if this is clearly not the end of the story. This didn’t end in resolution, this ended in a leaping off point. I felt like there was a point about two-thirds of the way through the book that would have made an excellent ending, but obviously more happened after that.

Stories where girls disguise themselves as boys are always interesting to me. It presents a number of interesting issues, but is such a good storytelling technique (and so necessary from a historical point of view sometimes) that it is done frequently in fiction. I felt that this book actually glossed over that element a lot. I kept wondering how the girls looked like boys with their hair up but as soon as it fell out of the topknot it was bound in, they looked immediately liked girls again. Their faces should look the same and the boys, in theory, all had hair just as long. So why the sudden revelation? From a historical standpoint, it seemed odd. If all it took to look like boys was putting their hair up in a boys’ hairstyle, why would their hair falling out suddenly break that illusion? In terms of otherwise pretending to be boys, little else seemed to matter. Occasionally the girls’ deepened their voices when dealing with people who might recognize them, but this largely seemed irrelevant and no other changes or deceptions were mentioned.

For two noblewomen, Kimi and Hana seemed unnaturally comfortable in a school full of men and boys. Perhaps this was because the student politics of the school was surprisingly feminine. The school bully acts very much like a high school queen bee, not like a popular or powerful boy. He bullies by finding out people’s secrets and using them against them, practicing deception, making others look bad to those in authority, putting people down and puffing himself up, but rarely actually physical bullying. That’s a classic girl way of getting and maintaining social power in a school or other similar social environment, but not a typical boy one. The servants gossip and warn each other of potential dangers and risks (even simply risks to personal pride), a very standard female group behavior as well. It’s no wonder two girls fit in perfectly!

While I found a lot to like about this book, I can’t honestly say that I’d really recommend it. Perhaps when the series is completed it will stand as a wonderful set of books, but this one alone just isn’t enough. I’m glad that I got to read it, but I’m certainly not going to run out for the sequel when it comes out either (I might pick it up in paperback, but certainly not in hardcover).

Sisters of the Sword altA note on the cover: The cover shown in this post is the one on the book that I received. I’m hoping that it’s the final cover, as opposed to the one on the HarperCollins website (see small image to the right). The girl on mine is much more appropriate – she’s strong and confident, I could believe that she would disguise herself as a boy successfully and train as a warrior. The girl on the website image reminds me of the stereotypical willowy lotus-blossom girls. She’s too delicate and sweetly posed, I’d never believe that she’s Kimi. She doesn’t have the fire that made the character fun to read about. I’d never believe a girl like that could do the things Kimi and Hana did. I’d believe it from the cover I got (see the large image at the top of this post).

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