REVIEW: The Kensei by Jon F. Merz

REVIEW SUMMARY: The world needs balance, grasshopper, and when I need balance from the onslaught of the vampires of Twilight I will enjoy the martial arts, sword wielding vampire that is Lawson.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Lawson heads to Japan to unwind after some nasty work as the Vampire Council’s Fixer. But the intersection of the Yakuza, organ stealing, a rouge vampire out to create hybrids and his old human girlfriend (ex-KGB, of course) give no rest for weary sword wielding vampires.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Very well done martial arts sequences, both in the streets and in the dojo; excellently paced (first book I’ve read in one sitting in a long time); different take on the Vampire reality; vivid descriptions of Japan.

CONS: Little SF (hey, this is SF Signal after all); some backstory from earlier books in the series provided, but some points unclear for those of us experiencing our first read in the series; Lawson’s wisecracking gets old by the end of the story.

BOTTOM LINE: Any read that pulls you into its clutches for a one-sitting read is like this one: well paced, well thought out, lots of action…the swords, martial arts and vampires creating hybrid vampire-humans don’t hurt either.


When you mention vampire and sword in the same sentence, most people will think Blade or they talk about hacking away in frustration at the last Twilight DVD (apologies in advance to my wife for the Twilight digs). The so-called “Urban Fantasy” genre has be overdone to death (pun intended) with either too much romance bordering on porn or repetitious scenarios.

The Kensei is not Blade, it is certainly not Twilight. It is a excellently paced action thriller that happens to have a secret agent vampire as the main character. It is written in a realistic fashion, where if you took the vampire-esque pieces out, an excellently paced action thriller would still be in place. It is also the first book I have read in one sitting in a long long time.

I am the default SF Signal recipient for books with a martial arts slant and am always ready for a story with well written martial arts dialogue, tradition and scenes.

The Lawson series provides an interesting take on the vampire world that mixes in some Qigong / martial arts culture. The genesis of the vampire “race” is that while some stone age hunters drank the blood of their animal kills thinking to gain their strength, others drank the blood of their human kills.

From page 12 (of the Advance Reader copy):

“Over time, our bodies developed a means of distilling the life force energy – what they call ki in Japanese, chi in Chinese or even prana in the yogic traditions – from the blood we drank. The ingestion of this life force energy meant we lived longer and had above-average instincts and reflexes. We can see extremely well at night. And we have incredible powers of regeneration.”

Wood kills them, and the casual explanation hearkens back to the philosophy of balance with the elements: Earth, Water, Wood, Fire (some descriptions put in Air, some have four elements, some five, some eight to match trigrams and some thirteen for martial arts postures/directions). Wood balances out Earth, which is why wood (and wood by-products!) kill vampires like Lawson.

Though my son and I will sit through any (and I mean any) martial arts movie for enjoyment, to describe this in words in a realistic way is difficult. Real fights never come off as choreographed, but an author must do his best to describe the action, the reactions and the thought that goes into this and make it as realistic and entertaining as possible. Jonathan Maberry (with the Joe Ledger series) has been my favorite on doing this beforehand, but Jon Merz gives him a run for his money.

Lawson is a wiseacre outside of the dojo, but Merz turns him respectful inside the hall, which mirrors real life. You don’t crack jokes in front of the sensei and remain in his dojo for longer than the five seconds it takes for him to kick you out. Realistic bits like this are inserted throughout.

In this story (the fifth in the Lawson vampire series) Lawson heads to Japan to recuperate. He is a Fixer for the Vampire council, responsible for keeping the balance between humans and the secret world of the vampires. His idea of recuperation is to visit a ninjutsu master for training. On the train, he gets crossways with a Yakuza hit man who he thinks is after him but goes after a Japanese man. As Lawson fights the Yakuza, and the Japanese man kills the Yakuza.

Lawson then encounters the local “Control”, Yuki, the contact for vampires in Japan. She tells him that the Yakuza that was killed most likely works for a rogue vampire called “The Kensei”, whom the vampire council thought was dead. When Lawson’s human girlfriend Talya shows up, looking for the source of an organ trafficing network, and it turns out to be “The Kensei”, then the party starts. The Kensei is also experimenting with creating an army of human-vampire hybrids (hence the organs), and Lawson wrestles with those both on his side and on the Kensei’s. As a Fixer on vacation, he has a lot to fix.

Wrapped around this is a Godan martial arts test at the ninjutsu, where the grandmaster stands behind you with a bamboo sword, and the student, eyes closed, it supposed to “feel” the sword coming and roll out of the way. Merz describes this sequence (which Lawson, even with his vamp instincts, fails the first time) very well, and includes the self-doubt and conjecture that all martial artists feel before, during and after such tests.

Some of Lawson’s wisecracks got old toward the end. But the descriptions of Japan, the martial arts moments and the well paced story line make it an enjoyable read. I rarely read series out of order, so may need to track the others down and start from the beginning.

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