Year of the Demon by Steve Bein
Published by Roc, September 2014. Paperback of 497 pages at $7.99.
The cover: I admit the cover made me stop upon this title. A young woman dressed in military gear with a Japanese blade on her shoulder against an Asian metropolis. The tagline “Know your enemy. Know yourself” is to her right. She looks angry and ready for action. The title is in bright yellow, with the series title “A novel of the Faded Blades” below it; a splattering of blood on it. Flipping the book over this sounded like an urban fantasy, so I made a purchase. Score major points for the cover artist, whoever that is, as, sadly, there’s no credit given anywhere on this book for this image. Overall grade: A
The premise: From the back cover, “A mask of destruction. Detective Sergeant Mariko Oshiro has been promoted to Japan’s elite narcotics unit–and with this promotion come (sic) a new partner, a new case, and new danger. The underboss of a powerful yakuza crime syndicate has put a price on her head, and he’ll life the bounty only if she retrieves and ancient iron demon mask that was stolen from him in a daring raid. However, Mariko has no idea of the tumultuous past carried within the mask–or of its deadly link with the famed Inazuma blade she wields. The secret of this mask originated hundreds of years before Mariko was born, and over time the mask’s power has evolved to bend its owner toward destruction, stopping at nothing to obtain Inazuma steel. Mariko’s fallen sensei knew much of the mask’s hypnotic power and of its mysterious link to a murderous cult. Now Mariko must use his notes to find the mask before the cult can bring Tokyo to its knees–and before the underboss decides her time is up…” Okay, this sounds like a crime novel with some fantasy overtones, set in Japan. I’m definitely up for this. Overall grade: A
The characters: There are three focuses in this book that the back cover failed to mention in its tease. There is, indeed, Mariko Oshiro, but there is absolutely nothing fantasy related about her adventure. She is a Narcotics officer trying to stand out as a woman and her partner goes to far with an investigation plunging them into a case. She’s okay, but nothing beyond anything seen in any episode of Law and Order. Her antagonist is a cult, but if you’ve been awake since the twenty-first century began and have any memory of any major crimes happening in Japan since then, you’ll predict what’s going on and why. The villain of her piece was absolutely boring. The second focus begins in 1588 with Daigoro, a leader of a house who is exceptional with the blade Glorious Victory Unsought (the same blade that Mariko has in the present). His blade is being sought by evil popinjay Shichio. This is a worthy villain, though he uses others to commit his crimes. Daigoro was interesting, but I was expecting the book to focus only on Mariko. The third focus of the book is on little Kaida in 1484. She’s a crippled Cinderella who seeks to leave her village to run off with mercenaries who’ve invaded. She was one note, and the villains half a note. Think of ever possible cliché, and you know exactly what’s going on in this tale. Daigoro and Kaida’s stories could be completely excised from this novel, and nothing would be lost from Mariko’s story. The serve only as background for the blade and mask, but seeing as how nothing fantasy related occurs with either object, they’re superfluous stories that would be better served being their own books. Overall grade: D
The settings: Japan in three different time periods: 2010, 1588, and 1484. The modern day Japan was exciting, especially when Mariko is on a case, in the field. The cultists’ home was very cool and the yakuza’s apartment entertainingly described. 1588 evoked nothing for me that I haven’t seen in a Akira Kurosawa movie. Nothing new here. 1484 is in an isolated location, that has a fantastic natural cove, but the village is the expected shanty-town. Overall grade: B
The action: For a book featuring a woman holding a sword on the cover, it completely lied. Why? He sword is stolen on Page 28. There’s detective work she’s involved with that has no tension whatsoever. When the plot of the cult is revealed it’s the antithesis of an anticlimax. What a waste! Daigoro’s story is more fully developed, and he does much more, as he is a master swordsman, and does everything you would expect an honorable samurai to do. His story has the most satisfying action, but I didn’t purchase this book to read his adventures. As a crippled child, there is one skill that Kaida is introduced as having, and, unsurprisingly, she uses that skill to benefit herself at the end of her tale. The action of this book is overly foreshadowed and ultimately dull. Overall grade: D-
The conclusion: I wanted the time spent on this book back. The endings were completely predictable. The stories vaguely had something to do with each other, though don’t depend on each other to warrant their necessity or joint inclusion. I was angry and frustrated. Overall grade: F
The final line: This book was found in the science fiction section at my local Barnes & Noble and it shouldn’t have been there. This is a straightforward historical fiction novel. I was expecting a bill of goods I did not receive. This was three stories in one, with none being satisfactory. I will not read another book by Steve Bein again involving these characters. Overall grade: D
Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer’s Guide for several years with “It’s Bound to Happen!”, he reviewed comics for TrekWeb, and he currently reviews Trek comics at TrekCore. He’s taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for two years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.