bookrev: Tengu by John Donohue

Tengu is the third novel in John Donohue’s series of Connor Burke: anthropologist, martial Tengu by John Donohuearts student and instructor. It is an excellently paced read, tough to put down, and describes the martial arts involved from a realistic point of view: no levitating kicks with wires here, just hard work and lots of blood and sweat. The book title refers to a Japanese martial artist (nicknamed after a mythical Japanese mountain goblin) who holds old grudges against Burke and his sensei, Yamashita.

The Tengu puts in motion a complex plot, involving Muslim terrorists in the Philippines, the kidnapping of embassy marines and a Japanese student from a wealthy family, and various other players connected to Burke. This plan ultimately leads to Yamashita getting kidnapped and Burke (along with his brother, cop Mickey and partner Art) are sent to the Philippines to rescue the sensei. Burke is well portrayed as an unemployed academic who spends the majority of his life immersed in martial arts, looked upon as somewhat of an outcast (i.e., weirdo) by his family and society.

One caution I would give to potential readers is that I read this 3rd novel before reading the first two, and felt that I was missing some backstory that would have been helpful. If the first two are of the caliber of this one (and as quick of a read) it should be a worthwhile investment of time to read them.

There are several pieces that stand out here in the genre of martial arts fiction:

  • the relationship between master and teacher: very well depicted, Burke is the senior student and part-time teacher, but the respect shown the master at all times (in and out of the dojo) and the constant questioning that students always do of teachers;
  • the challenge; fighters challenge fighters, and there is much ego involved (even though suppressing the ego is a large part of advanced martial arts); good dipiction of several challenges (Burke and the Army, Burke and the Filipinos) here;
  • the pain of truly doing martial arts; face it, sparring hurts, and too many books depict a fight as something more super hero-ish than what really happens (or maybe I just get hit too much in my sparring?!); Donohue has obviously been hit a few times, and he makes you feel it in print…like in Indiana Jones where the large German beats Indy around the plane…you can feel it, can’t you?
  • the senses; this is where a lot of martial arts books go over board, but there is a “sense of being stared at” that gets honed in the martial arts, and, again, Donohue provides an accurate and realistic (albeit fictionalized) description;

Though parts of the ending were somewhat convenient (and most endings are), this was very enjoyable fiction and martial arts description. I will definitely seek out the first two novels.

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