Cheryl Aylward Whitesel, Blue Fingers: a ninja's tale (Clarion Books, 2004)

It's a common flaw in certain genres for the background to be more interesting than the foreground. Science fiction is notorious for this: the author creates a dazzling future world, overflowing with cool gadgets and mind-blowing concepts and vast panoramas of time and space, but neglects to create characters who aren't upstaged by the setting, or a plot that does more than show off the landscape.

Historical fiction can also fall into this trap. In that case, the author is bedazzled by research rather than by invention, but the result is similar: a fascinating history lesson which functions less effectively as a story.

Cheryl Aylward Whitesel's middle-grade novel Blue Fingers: a ninja's tale is great fun when it focuses on ninjas doing sneaky-cool ninja stuff, but less successful when it comes to characterization, plot, pacing, or anything else that isn't directly related to ninjas.

Koji and Taro are identical twin farm boys in 1545 Japan. At twelve, the emotionally and physically immature Koji has always envied his brother, who seems extraverted, brave, skillful, and generally everything that Koji thinks he isn't. When Taro saves a dye-maker's life, the grateful man offers him an apprenticeship -- a huge step up in social status.

For reasons which are not explained until later in the book, the twins' parents make Koji impersonate his brother and take the apprenticeship. In the first of a series of peculiar actions which are never satisfactorily explained, the dye-maker refuses to wait more than about three minutes between making his offer and taking Koji back with him, without even giving the kid a chance to pack his clothes. (None of the other characters seem to think this is odd.)

But Koji is too homesick and undisciplined to succeed at his apprenticeship. So the dye-maker sends him back home with a gift for his father -- a piece of cloth with a crane design which can only legally be owned by Lord Udo, the local daimyo. Why a sympathetic character would stick someone he barely knows with a gift that would have to be hidden lest it get him killed, when any other piece of well-made cloth would have shown the same respect without the danger, is never explained.

Needless to say, Koji's possession of the crane cloth sets into motion a sequence of events which end with him drafted into a clan of ninjas. Most of the rest of the book focuses on Koji learning the tricks of the ninja trade, and excellent tricks they are. Whitesel did a fair amount of research, judging from the bibliography at the end of the book, and she did an excellent job of culling all the best bits of ninja lore and putting them in the book.

But a novel cannot consist solely of ninjas throwing shuriken, hiding in the rafters, and making ingenious use of frogs and snakes and exploding eggshells. A novel must also have characters and a plot, and those in Blue Fingers are thoroughly overshadowed by the details about ninja life.

Koji, who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, makes for a frustratingly dim protagonist, and the supporting characters are less than vivid. Like the dye-maker, all the characters are prone to behaving in peculiar and unexplained ways. Does Koji withhold significant knowledge from the ninja chief because he doesn't trust him yet, or because he doesn't have the sense to realize that a completely new weapon being discussed at high levels of government might be something the ninjas would want to know about? It's not explained.

The plot allows for many excellent scenes of derring-do, but suffers from the same opacity that afflicts the characters. The ninja keep calling Lord Udo evil and foil one of his plans, but they never even consider killing him, though they can sneak into his bedroom and drip sleeping potion into his snoring mouth. I can think of reasons why they'd rather not, but I'd like to have had it raised and dismissed as a possibility rather than never mentioned.

There are several moments where the language and philosophy of the characters is jarringly twenty-first century, such as when a ninja betrays the clan but is forgiven with the comment, "He will work on this issue." That sentence and sentiment belong in a psychiatrist's office, not a ninja camp. At another point, Koji's sensei tells him that a ninja must be "morally upright." I don't demand that Whitesel portray the ninja as the amoral hitmen that they probably were, but it's a bit much to have them quote the Boy Scout manual.

But quibbles aside, if you have a craving for ninjas, you could do much worse than Blue Fingers. And when you're done with it, if that craving is still there, I recommend the ninja-centered manga series Flame of Recca. The latter has plenty of ninja tricks, but also likable and quirky characters and a sense of humor.

[Rachel Manija Brown]