Stan Hawthorne is the youngest member of a team of five warriors who bear ancient armor that endows them with magical powers. While Stan nervously attempts to navigate the tensions of his friends who are supposed to be on the same side, he also struggles to keep the team’s number one rule: don’t fight alone. When he’s tempted to break this rule, he ends up finding a world of trouble awaiting the samurai heroes.
As a rule, I do not read Young Adult fiction. It’s not because I don’t like the genre, but because it usually isn’t written that well. In On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien critiques the idea of making fairy stories only for children because that approach tends to treat children as another form of human than the kind we meet in adults. If a story is good for children, in Tolkien’s conception, it should be good the same way a well-prepared meal should provide nutrients to both. Sure, an adult may have a more sophisticated palate than children’s entertainment, but children’s entertainment should simply be adult entertainment pared down to what a child can consume. So much YA I have encountered talks down to its readers that it’s hard for me to generally sustain the effort of reading it. I’m delighted to say I’ve found in Stan Hawthorne a recent example of YA that delightfully defies the expectations I have for YA.
I picked up Stan Hawthorne at the 2019 Realm Makers conference. My decision was nostalgia powered: I detected that the story was an homage to Ronin Warriors, an old anime that I loved as a kid. And if you show up for the nostalgia factor, you won’t be disappointed. Creatively, Williams has designed a thorough-going homage to the show, beautifully balancing the effort of crafting her own characters while making each of them a nod to the beloved characters and drama from the show. If you don’t know Ronin Warriors, perhaps you know Saint Seiya, the Gundam series, or even the more recent depiction of the Power Rangers where they derive powers from their suits. If you’re familiar with properties like these, even if you don’t know Ronin Warriors directly, you’ll feel the tug of anime-esque nostalgia right from the beginning.
But Stan Hawthorne & the Broken Sword does not run on nostalgia power alone (as magnificently as it brings that to bear like a sharp-edged, narrative katana). The characters are believable and interesting, the jokes are appropriately calibrated to the age and intelligence of the characters (and range from entertainingly obnoxious to laugh out loud funny), and the action is laid out with efficient, tidy prose that turns the scene into a movie you can clearly picture in your head. There’s no fat on the prose, but it’s never skeletal either – every scene, every character interaction hits the spot. And what’s nice is, Williams pulls this off without marching us through the Marvel type origin story: the characters are already part of a group and already have their conflicts in place, yet Williams gets you invested in the young team’s interpersonal drama as they try to battle robot soldiers and discover new, more difficult enemies that test the status quo of heroics they have grown comfortable with before the narrative starts.
What’s most fascinating about the story for me is the dynamic between the samurai and their magical armors. Without giving too much away, there’s a crucial manner in which the personality of each character, including Stan himself, affects his ability to use his armor. Given that the magical armor is what equips the warriors to be able to take on the foot soldiers of an evil, dimension-crossing invasion force, being able to actually use the armor’s powers is pretty important. But the more out of touch each samurai is with his armor, the less effective he is on the battle suit.
Stan is unique in the intuitive connection he has with his armor, which transforms him into the waterway-attuned Reishosan called Kagami. This dynamic reminds me of the notion discussed by the psychologist John Rowan in his book Subpersonalities, where he discusses how a person’s personality is really not one personality, but networks of personality patterns. Having multiple personality patterns is not unique to personality disorder: everyone has multiple personality patterns. The more in touch we are with those multiple personality patterns, the more healthily we can function as a whole. Although he’s not perfect, Stan is able to integrate with his powers as Kagami more effectively because he is more in tune with his own psychological complexity – which other characters, even his elders on the team, struggle to manage. If you’re into personality tests like the Meyers-Briggs, Enneagram, or Big Five, then this aspect of the story will hold special fascination for you.
Stan Hawthorne & the Broken Sword put a smile on my face as soon as I saw it and realized that it was a creative, engaging homage to one of the greatest forgotten animes of its time, and kept that smile on my face from the first to the last page. But even if you don’t know the source of inspiration, the character of Stan Hawthorne will provide a great introduction to a narrative of complicated personalities struggling to navigate each other as well as their elemental samurai powers. Come on, it’s magically powered American samurai fighting evil robots and their demonic masters – you know this is going to be a blast. Pick it up.