Book Review: Jay Noel’s Dragonfly Warrior
Back when I reviewed Gabrielle Faust’s Eternal Vigilance: From Deep Within the Earth (actual title), I had to admit that the book was Just Not For Me. And that’s fair, as if you’re one of those readers with an insatiable appetite for books about tragic pretty vampires crying tears of pretty vampire blood, then I won’t judge. (Much).
In contrast, Jay Noel’s Dragonfly Warrior should have been the opposite. It’s a steampunk alt-history western starring a gunslinging samurai in the old west. I’m a sucker for genre-benders, so when I happened across Jay Noel’s booth one weekend at a small con (one not in Texas, to boot), I scooped that up. In fact, since Noel himself was a nice guy, and I wanted to support an indie author, I went ahead and got his whole trilogy.
In retrospect, this might not have been the best idea.
Dragonfly Warrior centers around Kanze Zenjuro (“Zen,” for short), the aforementioned samurai gunslinger on the cover. He’s given a quest (complete with a plot-device-worthy amulet) and sent from his homeland of Not-Japan all the way over to Not-America, where he is supposed to look for a legendary sword. How a mythical Not-Japanese sword wound up in Not-America is a bit beyond me, but hey, anything to get the plot going, right? So yeah, Zen muddles along, makes some friends, gets in some fights, and generally goes wherever his little plot device amulet tells him to until I finally got bored and gave up a little over halfway through.
The thing is, while the “high concept” pitch of Dragonfly Warrior is golden, it falters in the execution. For example, Noel sets his book in a vaguely alternate-history (really, I’d almost call it fantasy-history) sort of setting. So instead of Japan, it’s “Nihon.” Instead of America, the wild-western land is called “Agrios.” Instead of England, you have “Albion.” Fair enough. The problem is, it seems like Noel got bored and/or distracted after renaming the first few countries, as most other parts of the world just get extra letters shoehorned in: Russiya, Koreya, Austrailiasia, Pariis, and so on. Every time someone would mention an extra-lettered country, it just pulled me out of the book. On top of this, the way the world is set up doesn’t make any sense, but I’ll bring that up later.
And then there’s Zen himself, who is a stoic and driven samurai badass … which can be an interesting character type if done well. Unfortunately, Zen … isn’t. I suppose Noel meant to contrast Zen against his friends, like a revenge-seeking lady gunslinger, or a scoundrel of a Navajo (sorry, “Nabaho,”) airship pilot. Unfortunately, none of the book’s characters get the chance to really shine and endear themselves to the reader. It’s just ‘okay, we need to get form point A to point B in the plot, here we go.
Speaking of the plot … well, it starts vaguely promising, with Zen off on his western-wandering adventure. Unfortunately, the plot soon stalls after that. See, Zen’s Not-Navajo buddy takes him on an airship ride to his home village, which happens to be under siege by pirates. At least, “pirates” is the term Noel uses more often than not. Which is funny, as the guys don’t ride around in anything like boats or airships– they’re distinctly land-bound, driving around in weirdo steam-powered cars.
From page 72 to page 189, over a hundred pages, Zen and co. must fight these raiders. Thankfully, it’s not all one battle scene, as there’s some scouting and captures and daring escapes and what have you, but the pacing feels all off. On top of this is the fact that the conspicuously landbound pirates have conquered a village about twenty miles away from the Not-Navajo village. Which, given the fact that both sides in the conflict have access to steam-driven cars, seems just a bit silly to me. I mean, even assuming they’re limited to jankity steampunk technology, topping out at, say, 20mph, that means the characters could literally cruise over to the next down and start shooting at their leisure.
Not that anybody seems that tactically minded to begin with. See, the dirt-pirates are led by a dude named Cheng. Cheng is an exiled officer from Not-China (er, “Xin,”) who has decided to set himself up as a warlord in generic western land for … reasons. Also somehow he has managed to attract hundreds of cutthroat followers, and he’s managed to buy a bunch of high tech weaponry that some arms dealer stole/bummed/whatever from the Evil Empire. Kaaaay.
Thing is, after Zen disgraces Cheng by escaping, Cheng’s literal line of thought is: “the Not-Navajo are going to expect me to do the smart thing, and gather my men before attacking. So I’m going to do the stupid thing and drive my outnumbered men directly at a fortified position, cause a suicide charge will let me regain my honor!” … complete with Cheng himself driving a big-ass steam-truck turned into a battering ram. Just why his random bunch of mooks is okay with this plan is beyond me.
There’s a reason people love great villains. By presenting some terrible and insurmountable and otherwise badass opponent for your protagonist, the protagonist in turn looks more impressive for defeating them. However, when you have a guy like Cheng, who’s evil plots boil down to “LEEEEROY JENKINS!” it just makes your protagonist look like an idiot if he can’t beat them in a chapter. Which, again, the whole ‘Siege from Cheng’ bit is over a hundred pages, and Cheng isn’t even the main villain of the book!
The book’s real villain (at least, I’m presuming so) is some guy named Geller, who inexplicably has a bunch of the Evil Empire’s guns to sell. Oh, and he’s kidnapped Lady-Gunslinger’s kid, because that kid is brilliant and important for, uh … reasons.
Or maybe the book’s villain is some dude named The Professor, who’s introduced cruising around in a submarine on page 209 for some reason. Or maybe it’s the random evil ninja Zen’s dad mentioned way early in the book and then shows up a little after the Professor or … gah, I dunno. Noel keeps on throwing in bits and flashbacks and new characters without warning, making the whole narrative muddled and uninteresting.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of pacing. Noel doesn’t develop his world very deeply (or worse, he thinks he’s developed it deeply). And to be honest, I can forgive this pretty easily, as not every sci-fi book needs to be something as deeply mapped out as Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Where Noel goes wrong, though, is that the book just doesn’t deliver on its promise of crazy samurai gunslinger adventures. I mean, yes, Zen does get in a bunch of fights and shoot a bunch of people … but it never goes full out crazy (at least in the first half). Honestly, the whole bit with Cheng could’ve been scaled down to a single gang instead of an army, and scaled down to two or three chapters instead of over a quarter of the book, and the plot would’ve flowed much, much better. Zen meets new friends, they team up to fight the minor villain, and then they get a clue pointing them in the direction of the rest of the plot. Boom. Done. Maybe add in something rad like a swordfight on top of a blimp, and then keep on going.
I appreciate what Noel’s trying to do. I especially appreciate how he makes it a point to use a samurai as a hero, as opposed to the standard “Lord Fancyhat” white-guy protagonists of most Victorian-derivative steampunk novels. (Seriously, English aristocracy is not punk). Buuuuuut, there was at least one line that made my racial-analysis-sense tingle. From page 195:
“The man was a brutal mercenary. Even his name was brutal: Kamau.”
Really though, I’m willing to give Noel the benefit of the doubt here, as the book isn’t offensive, it’s just … dull. Maybe things pick up in the last third of the book, or maybe the next two books in the trilogy knock it out of the park, but I’ve got a big ol’ pile of unread books to get through, so I’m probably gonna get to those, first. Sorry, Jay.