Who's to say which type is more dangerous?
~The Kensei: A Lawson Vampire Novel by Jon F. Merz (ARC copy)
Meet Lawson. A cynical, wise-cracking vampire charged with protecting the Balance between vampires and humans, he is part cop, part spy, and part commando — James Bond with fangs. Lawson mixes shrewd cunning with unmatched lethality to get his job done. He tries his best to dismantle conspiracies, dispatch bad guys, and live long enough to get home. In The Kensei, a battle-weary Lawson heads to Japan for a little rest and some advanced ninja training. But he no sooner steps off the plane than lands in the midst of a Yakuza turf war orchestrated by a shadowy figure known as the Kensei. With the help of Talya, a former KGB-assassin, Lawson must put a stop to the Kensei’s organ trafficking networks, prevent the creation of an army of vampire-human hybrids, and save his own skin in the process.
Believe it or not, when I was asked if I was interested in reviewing "The Kensei" it wasn't the cool cover that prompted me to say yes. Rather, I was intrigued by the storyline that featured a vampire in Japan. I went to school in Japan about fifteen years ago and I'm always interested to see how other people write about the experiences of a foreigner, or "outside person," in Japan. And I gotta say-- Merz nails it. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
"The Kensei" isn't so much a vampire novel as much as it is a kind of action oriented thriller-- saying it's in the James Bond mold is entirely accurate. Lawson is a vampire in the classic sense in that he needs blood to survive. The vampires in Lawson's world draw their life energy from the blood they drink, which in turn gives them long life and super-regenerative healing powers. Their primary weakness is a vulnerability to wood and all wood products (turpentine filled bullets are particularly troublesome). Lawson isn't all that fond of the fact that he has to drink blood to survive, but he's not a slave to it either. He'll feel weak without it, but doesn't turn into an uncontrollable monster when his stock of "juice" runs low. So while he isn't stalking humans for food, he also isn't getting super angsty over his nutritional needs either-- which is a net plus in my opinion.
I jumped into "The Kensei" without having read the previous books in the series, which does leave some gaps in my knowledge of the mythology of the series. But it's an easy story to catch onto and I didn't have a problem getting into the flow or getting to know the characters at all. Lawson is a slightly stereotypical character in that he shoots more wise-cracks at his opponents than he does bullets. In fact there is an almost Tourette-like quality to Lawson's verbal sparring and it can be distracting. Additionally it isn't unusual for Lawson to be the beneficiary of a couple of last-minute rescues that stretch the credibility of the narrative.
But, small critiques asisde, I couldn't help but like "The Kensei." Lawson is an interesting, likable main character. He's tough without being invincible; a smart-alec without being a jerk. But what I really loved about Merz's book was his ability to make Japan come alive for me. It is described exactly as I remembered it and it gives the story an instant credibility as far as I'm concerned. The book also has a strong storyline with a good villain and interesting sidekicks. The action is fast-paced without being constant and the martial arts sequences are believable and well choreographed. "The Kensei" is a good, easy-going read that should suit the reader that gravitates toward books by Jim Butcher or Simon R. Green.
4 out of 5 stars.