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From The Asian Reporter, V17, #43 (October 23, 2007), page 15.
New adventure is samurai sharp
The 47th Samurai
By Stephen Hunter
Simon & Schuster, 2007
Hardcover, 372 pages, $26.00
By Jeff Wenger
Stephen Hunter has a day job (heís the movie critic for The Washington Post) so he doesnít turn out a new thriller every year. His books are worth the wait.
The 47th Samurai is a story of Bob Lee Swagger, hero of the previous books Point of Impact and Time to Hunt. For the better part of 15 years, Hunter has been telling Bob Leeís stories and those of Bob Leeís father, Earl Swagger. Because the junior Swagger was in Vietnam and is around 60 years old in The 47th Samurai, and because the elder Swagger, a World War II vet and Arkansas state trooper, was killed in 1955, Hunter may be running out of timeline into which to squeeze his stories. If The 47th Samurai proves to be the last of the bunch, Hunter finishes strong.
The 47th Samurai effectively moves between the present day with Bob Lee, and the Marine landing on Iwo Jima where Earl fought. Defending Iwoís black volcanic sand was Hideki Yano who, as the Japanese Empire collapsed, no longer believed in glory, but only in duty.
In the modern day, Bob meets Philip Yano, Hidekiís son, and the plot proceeds with old letters and pursued relationships. An old sword is obtained that binds the sons of the fathers, and Bob visits Japan.
None of which is inconsequential, but it soon yields to tragedy, and the insatiable hunger for revenge, and thereby hangs the tale.
There seem to be two concerns about an outsider seeking justice in a closed society, in this case an American action hero in Japan. The first is that the story never rises above caricature, and you get John Wayne or Wesley Snipes levelling vengeance against monolithic, karate-fighting emperor worshippers or yakuza or salarymen ó it doesnít matter, because theyíre all the same, like the Indian braves in a Western or the security detail on "Star Trek."
The other concern may be filed under "white ninja," wherein the author and his hero are so enamored, so ensorcelled by the East, so deferential that they go immediately native and lose all sense of contrast.
Hunter leans over the railing, but he doesnít fall in.
As his did in 2001ís Pale Horse Coming, which reworked Aeschylusís Seven Against Thebes, Hunter again touches up a classic hero tale. This time he brings the Attack of the 47 Ronin on Kiraís Mansion from 1703 into the present. This is a Japanese historic national moment not unlike the Alamo. Hunterís not being cagey ó heís telling a mythology about super-warriors, and battles between great evil and, if not actually good themselves, then at least the defenders of good. Hunter lays it out simply between oppressors and defenders; the motivation matters.
Philip Yano finds that "Samurai had become international." It is the warrior ethos that transcends nationality and the technicalities of method. It is this that allows disbelief to be suspended during Bobís sword training, that, while he isnít a samurai in the specifics, he is in spirit. Heís the distillation of pure warrior.
Hunter is such a good writer that, even in a simple adventure and morality tale, he canít help but convey nuance, such as Japanís national midlife crisis or the personal one when Bob Lee falls off the wagon and strains his marriage.
Anyway, thatís not what The 47th Samurai is about; itís about establishing the wickedness of the bad guys and setting up the showdown with the good guys and then turning them loose on each other. Hunter does this better than the top ten on the list of those who write thrillers for their day job.