Jay Leibold’s Secret of the Ninja, which was the beginning of a tradition in the later Choose Your Own Adventure series, is a fairly engaging, entertaining book that manages to diminish–though not entirely overcome–the major problem inherent with a book of this nature: it’s really hard to write a kung fu fight scene in a book.
Secret of the Ninja by Jay Leibold (illustrated by S. Freymann)
Published: April 1987
Number in the CYOA Series: 66
Secret of the Ninja marks something of a turning point in the CYOA series. This is the first book with an explicitly kung fu/martial arts theme, but it certainly was not the last. Several other martial arts adventures made their appearance later in the series, together with sports-themed titles. I can see why Bantam wanted to do them. They must have been popular, because the ’80s was the golden era of martial arts as extracurricular activities for kids and teenagers, jumpstarted by the popular 1984 Karate Kid movie. This is, I believe, the only martial arts book in my collection. I’m just not that interested in the topic. That said, Secret of the Ninja isn’t bad, and in fact is pretty entertaining, though it’s far from being a stand-out of the series.
In this book, “you” are an advanced karate and aikido student, and you’ve moved to Kyoto, Japan to study under a master and with your best friend, Nada. Strange things have been happening to your dojo, however, such as unseasonable storms and thunder (no, not that!) since the day a mysterious antique sword, possibly with mystical powers, was delivered anonymously to the dojo. This sword, called the Green Destiny, is stolen by a cunning female assassin, Jade Fox, who…oh, wait. That’s not the plot. I was confusing this book with the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which, although it came out 13 years after this book was published, bears marked similarities to it. (In fact, the Crouching Tiger film was based on a Chinese novel written in the 1930s, so it could have been an influence for this, though if it was I would credit Mr. Leibold with being exceptionally well-read).
This scene from the classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is exactly the kind of magic-tinged martial arts action Secret of the Ninja tries–not always successfully–to convey.
Anyway, you and Nada have to dispel the bad juju that the sword has brought with it, which involves figuring out where it came from and why it’s screwing up your dojo. Your first choice, which you reach after a lot of exposition, is whether to track down the donor of the sword, or go back in time. Well, that was sudden! The plot doesn’t really matter that much, though. Basically it’s a springboard into an adventure where you and Nada end up fighting ninjas from the Miyamotori family, who have an ancient grudge against her family. Sometimes you do it in the modern day and sometimes you do it in feudal Japan, but it’s pretty much all the same because even the modern-day settings of the book involve sort of a mystical, fantasy-like Japan where time travel, magic, evil spirits and such are all normal everyday things. Secret of the Ninja is more fantasy than it lets on at first, but that’s part of its charm.
The plots in this book are pretty meandering, and there are really no strong characters other than Nada. It’s really the theme of ninjas and martial arts, and the exotic setting of feudal Japan, that hold this book together–just barely. Sometimes you’re facing an evil spirit called a kami, other times you’re squaring off against real live ninjas, and at other times you’re sort of tepidly trying to solve the mystery of the sword. There are some interesting set-pieces, like a fight with horse-mounted samurai on a forest road (p. 61), that are right out of a Kurosawa film, and a lot of things that reminded me of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which admittedly involves a Chinese, not Japanese, setting). Everything you’d expect from a Crouching Tiger-style martial arts adventure is here: swinging swords, the wise master, self-discipline as the key to victory, ancient grudges, some magic here and there, etc. It’s patched together imperfectly, but the writing is engaging. Jay Leibold is one of the better writers of the CYOA series, so no surprise there.
Ninjas and the warrior traditions of medieval Japan have a tremendous pull on our popular culture even in the West. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to run around dressed like this if you could?
Yet even a writer as gifted as Mr. Leibold can’t quite conquer the fact that it’s really difficult to describe a martial arts combat scene, especially one involving lots of skill and technical moves, and not have it grind to a halt on the page. Martial arts, kung fu and ninjas work so well in movies because they’re fast, acrobatic and visually arresting. In a book you’ve got to describe details that, on the screen, would flash by in nanoseconds. It’s just tough to do. Check out the fight described on page 74 to see what I mean. The longest paragraph on the page covers about two seconds of time, and contains sentences like, “Nada flies straight up in the air to avoid the sword and catches you in the chest with a foot-stamp.” I read this and I’m thinking, what? Do I need to make a diagram of this? S. Freymann’s illustrations don’t end up helping that much.
This is not a bad book at all. Actually it’s quite entertaining. It has its limits, but its heart is in the right place. Good clean fun, if a bit uneven. I recommend it.
Next up: Secret of the Sun God by Andrea Packard.