Book Review: Kensei, by Jeremy Zimmerman

Jeremy Zimmerman is a self-described writer, gamer, and smart ass who works out of Seattle, where he also edits Mad Scientist Journal. He's also the author of the young adult superhero series that started in 2012 with Kensei and will be continuing with the sequel, Kensei: The Love of Danger, which has already been funded on Kickstarter and is currently working toward its first stretch goal. It's a project I recommend, and I'd like to see it meet that stretch goal before all is said and done.

But that's the second book. What about the first? That's what I'm here to tell you about. Rather than wasting time trying to summarize the plot myself, here's the jacket copy:

"Jamie Hattori’s alter ego, the masked hero Kensei, has been doing pretty well protecting her neighborhood from petty villains with her martial arts skills, her father’s katana, and a little help from the local spirits. But things get rough when the spirits start flaking out, the Goddess of Discord throws a few cursed apples, and an online gossip site sics an angry football player on her. Then there’s her slipping grades, the vampire owls, and the cute roller derby chick looking for romance. And even worse, Jamie’s hero-hating mom is starting to get suspicious. Can Jamie defeat her mysterious nemesis without tearing her family apart? And more importantly, will she score her first kiss?"

So what did I think of Kensei? Jump the cut to find out! (Spoiler: I liked it -- as usual, minimal spoilers in the review.)

In Kensei, Zimmerman draws by influence and reference on film, gaming, mythology, religion, comic books, and fairy tales to create a superhero world that is at once familiar and novel, lived-in and fresh. He clearly has fun with his world without ever being overly cutesy about it. I was concerned at first that the book would require a lot of specialized knowledge from its readers, leaving those members of the audience who can't keep up with its references out in the cold. But one of the things I liked best about Kensei was how non-judgmental it was in this regard, even poking fun a time or two at the very phenomenon I'm talking about (once, after Kensei herself failed to catch a Twin Peaks reference -- which I even had to look up myself -- the book straight out says "never mind," excusing the protagonist and the reader in the same breath). This is especially nice in a story that is nominally about women and minorities, two groups that typically suffer from exactly this kind of exclusion. It's obvious that Zimmerman has his head on straight in this regard.

This attention to inclusion is clearly not accidental. One of the major themes that runs through the book is exclusion, ranging from basic high school cliquishness to serious social issues like homophobia and, in smaller doses, racism. In one of the story's recurring plot points, the "outcasts" of Kensei's world are being targeted, which plays as a bit of a smokescreen for the fact that all of the major characters -- even the resident Cordelia -- are outcasts in one or more significant ways, whether because of who they love, the color of their skin, the amount of money they have, the way they look, the hobbies they like, and so on. The conflict and tension of the book consistently rise when exclusionary tactics prey on these characters, and resolve when they strive for inclusion instead. This could play out as a trite kind of drive-our-heroes-apart-to-bring-them-back-together story, and there are one or two times this structure gets frustrating, when you want to reach in the book and shake a character for acting more like a jerk or feeling more suspicious of a friend than seems strictly necessary, but for the most part Zimmerman walks this line without crossing it, makes sure his conflict comes from the characters, their insecurities, and their positions in the social hierarchy, and not from the needs of the plot.

In these ways, there is a kind of delicate balancing act that Zimmerman plays throughout, being referential without being exclusionary, creating conflict between his core cast without manufacturing it. He pushes boundaries with the same attention to balance, but in this instance he's a little too conservative for my taste. It sounds a little silly to call a book whose protagonist is a half Japanese, half African American bisexual superhero "conservative," but given what Zimmerman starts with, and considering some of the boundaries YA is pushing as a genre these days, I think he plays it a little too safe. The language, sex, and violence you would expect from high school kids in relationships who fight crime with actual deadly swords are all surprisingly tame. Despite populating his cast with minorities, no more than a sentence or two of non-standard English passes their lips. Even at its most forward thinking, it always feels very safe. All of this, combined with the slim 178 pages makes the final product play very solidly to the younger side of young adult. I'll admit freely that "I'm not the intended audience" is kind of a lame criticism, and I invite you to dismiss it accordingly, but I can't help wishing ZImmerman had pushed one or two pieces of his world a little further.

When you get down to brass tacks with Kensei, though, it's a slim, fast, tightly-paced, action-packed superhero adventure filled with distinct, believable characters -- only Parker, the "cute roller derby chick" from the jacket copy who comes on awfully strong at times, feels like a character more than a person in places. From the first page, Kensei really kicks, opening up and explaining its world as it goes without ever slowing down the action too much, drawing its conflict from the natural insecurities of its people rather than the needs of its plot, and advancing an intriguing mystery all the while. And if ZImmerman is a little conservative in his execution, he's refreshingly forward-thinking in his design.

By the end, with the main conflict resolved, there are still a couple of big mysteries that have yet to be solved. But that's why there's a sequel.