Moonshadow: Rise of the Ninja and Moonshadow: The Nightmare Ninja are the first two installments in a series of children’s books by Simon Higgins about, well, ninjas. The first book is mostly entertaining if a bit slight, but the second, unfortunately, is disappointing due to an overreliance on fight scenes. While the Moonshadow series has potential, it took a step backward in book two.
Moonshadow is the title character, a young member of the Grey Light Order of ninjas. In Rise of the Ninja, we meet him as he is completing the final stage of his training. Upon succeeding, he is granted his new ninja name — Moonshadow — and his first assignment: to steal the plans for a new kind of weapon from Silver Wolf, an evil samurai seeking to overturn the current social order. To do so, he’ll have to employ not only his weapons and body training, but also his special talent of The Eye of the Beast, which allows him to mind-link to an animal and use its senses. Along with facing Silver Wolf’s handpicked team of professional killers, including the intimidating and mysterious person known only as Deathless, Moonshadow will also have to deal with Snowhawk, a ninja from a rival order that is sworn against the Grey Lights.
The setting is Japan during the earlier decades of the Tokugawa/Edo era (which ran from roughly 1603 to 1868). Not being an expert, I can’t say how accurately the timeline and events hew to actual history, but Higgins himself has a note at the back explaining he’s taken many “liberties” in this “romanticized… yarn”, so one shouldn’t try and nitpick factual details. It’s a good choice of time setting (or manipulation of time setting) in that Higgins presents us a Japan on the cusp of possible technological and societal change. Guns are entering the country and old ways and regimes are being questioned, all of which ratchets up the larger sense of tension while also providing specific plot points. Higgins also does a generally nice, if at times cursory, job of conveying the sense of the time, place, and culture — whether it be via the food, modes of travel, dress, weapons, dueling styles, folktales, etc. While none are delved into, taken as a whole they serve to transport the reader to another time and place.
The characters are mostly engaging, if they fall a bit into predictable line, as does the plot in places. Moonshadow grows as a person, making this a coming of age novel. We see growth as well for Snowhawk, though her story gets saved for better treatment in The Nightmare Ninja. The side characters are a bit two-dimensional, but avoid being simple clichés. The action is quick-paced and involves a fair amount of fighting described in blow-by-blow detail. Some young readers will eat these scenes up; others may skim through them by the time they get to the third or fourth. That said, Rise of the Ninja is much better balanced between fights and quieter, more character-driven or suspense-driven plotting than its sequel, The Nightmare Ninja.
The Nightmare Ninja continues Moonshadow and Snowhawk’s stories as the two team up to once again attempt to foil Silver Wolf’s conspiracies to take down the current government. The story is complicated by an Order War as earlier competition has turned into out and out warfare between The Grey Light Order and Snowhawk’s former order. Even worse for the two young heroes, along with having to face the physical threat of professional killers, Silver Wolf has now employed some who seem to be able to attack via the mind.
As mentioned above, the sequel is a step backwards. The biggest problem by far is its lack of balance. The book careens from one fight scene to another. While each individually may be fine, so many thrown so ceaselessly at the reader becomes a bit wearying and monotonous. The detail in each also seems to have been increased, so that the fights often drag on well past the point of interest. To be honest, by the halfway point I was skimming fight scenes, at the three-quarters point I was skipping them nearly in their entirety, and at the end, with the climactic one, I went back to skimming. Unfortunately, with so many fight scenes, all that skimming didn’t leave me a lot to sink my teeth into. One nice touch in the sequel is Higgins’ use of Japanese myths and folklore and the various types of odd creatures and monsters we see, many of them pleasantly unfamiliar (even if they themselves weren’t all that pleasant). I wish he had spent more time on those in ways beyond long fight scenes. There is a nice understory involving Snowhawk’s character and her choice of which path she will walk. It isn’t all that subtle, and it unfortunately gets buried beneath all the fighting, but it does raise the book’s level a bit. Again, I wish more had been done with it in better fashion.
The series so far remind me of the Tales of the Otori series by Lian Hearn, also set in Japan, in that the first book is quite strong but the following ones pale in quality. Rise of the Ninja is not as strong or well-written a book as Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor, but it is solidly entertaining and quick-paced, with likable characters who grow over the course of the book. The Nightmare Ninja is a step back, but perhaps Higgins can regain the balance and touch in subsequent books. I give a decent recommendation for Rise of the Ninja (especially for those who like a lot of action and fighting of the sword/martial arts kind) but advise skipping the sequel for now.
Here is my nine-year-old son’s review:
Rise of the Ninja was better because the evil was a more looming presence, the ending battle scene was better, and the evil characters were more interesting. The fights were exciting in both. The characters were interesting. In the sequel, I liked how Snowhawk had to learn how to control her rage and fury. And how Kagero was an older version of her so she could see what she would be like. It wasn’t quite as good as the first but still good. First one: 4.5 stars, Second one: 4 stars