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Sensei: A Thriller Hardcover – April 9, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Donohue crisply and elegantly blends Japanese martial arts and urban New York in his assured debut, a thriller about a vengeance-seeking Ronin, or masterless samurai. Dr. Connor Burke is an adjunct history instructor at a small Long Island university, a protg of Yamashita Sensei, a reclusive but renowned martial arts teacher-and a likable lead character. When it becomes clear that the murder of another sensei (a teacher) is part of a pattern, Burke becomes doubly involved, because he's a suspect and his cop brother Micky is one of the detectives investigating the case. As the novel whips along with the Ronin's motivation only gradually emerging, Burke takes the reader deeper and deeper into the arcane world of the martial arts: its techniques, disciplines and weapons; its spiritualism, customs and traditions. Lucid and dramatic fight scenes avoid the absurd hyperbole typical of a lot of martial arts fiction, while even minor characters, such as the university president and the members of Micky's family, are skillfully sketched. The author may telegraph the climactic scene too early, but he does a masterful job of depicting the ultimate struggle to capture or contain the Ronin. Both mystery buffs and martial arts fans will be well rewarded.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
*Starred Review* Martial-arts expert Donohue's first novel is so good that readers may find themselves hoping it won't become a series. Here's why. The plot is original and crafty: someone who calls himself Ronin--masterless Samurai--is apparently killing off martial-arts masters across the U.S., and Connor Burke, a university professor and martial-arts student, is brought into the investigation by his brother, a New York detective assigned to the case. Connor recruits his own sensei, Yamashita, and this unusual pair uncover the facts with a combination of mental skill and good, old-fashioned (amateur) detective work. The characters are fresh and interesting: in addition to the snappy-dialogue-spouting cops, who love to fire off allusions to old movies and TV shows, we have a martial-arts master and his student (shades, but only in a good way, of Kung Fu), an arrogant martial-arts promoter who now fancies himself an art expert, and a host of supporting players. The dialogue is sharp, the narrative polished far beyond the usual first-novel quality, and the story is entirely absorbing. So why not look forward to more in the series? Because subsequent novels might drain the premise of its freshness, leaving only a series of predictable adventures. This one just may be too good to duplicate. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Pro: The author is an actual martial artist (read: he knows what hes writing about). So his subject is handled with professionalism, respect, and a large amount of authority.
Con: I'm not a swordsman, so some of the descriptive fight imagery was somewhat lost on me. But this is not the fault of the author.
There are about 3 fights in the book - which some consider to be a negative for a story about martial arts. But those who feel this way are misguided in their expectations. "Sensei" is written to be realistic. So you can't expect the hero to be making breakfast and suddenly find himself in the middle of a ninja ambush. Ask anyone who actually trains how many REAL situations they've been in when they've had to use their skills on the street and you'll find those numbers can be counted on one hand for most everyone.
The story is a little thin when it comes to character development. Only the main character undergoes any real changes and even that is just simply him becoming a better fighter and gaining more skills and insight. But there are sequels, so I'll cut a little slack here in hopes that the supporting characters flesh out in later novels.
Speaking of gaining skills...I am an avid consumer of martial arts fiction and always cringe when I read or watch the hero become some unstoppable fighter as the result of a personal or spiritual revelation, or worse, some stupid montage. So I was extremely pleased to see how the author handled this hero's training. He would describe just enough to show you how painful (and to all you laymen out there it really IS painful) the training is without making the reading painful or tedious as well.
All in all, although it can occasionally taste like a somewhat watered down soup (a bit bland), its a great book and I will be purchasing its sequel soon.
John Donahue brings a wealth of understanding of both Japanese culture and the martial arts community to the novel. Unlike many martial arts books (and most martial arts movies) the book captures much of the spirit, discipline and realism of martial arts training. The book also captures the enigmatic sensei/student relationship inherent in martial arts graining.
The book weakens when some of the major players act off-character to advance the plot. The story is intricate and gripping, but it's a shame that some of the character realism had to be sacrificed. Many times you're left wondering, "Why doesn't anyone see what's really happening?" or "Why doesn't he just make a call on his cellphone?"
Despite the shortcomings, I'm looking forward to reading the upcoming sequel.
The book is written in the first person and is filled with snappy dialogue. It's very clear that Donohue has a great deal of first hand knowledge about the martial arts that he features in 'Sensei'. Readers who are interested will gain a great deal of insight into the mind of traditional japanese martial artists and martial arts masters. I also really enjoyed the inside look that Donohue gives concerning the psychology and methods of modern police work.
I will be on the lookout for more of this man's work.
Congratulation Mr. Donohue.