Grey Ronin by Matthew S. Cox

TITLE by AUTHORCombining a nuanced fusion of Japanese culture and future tech with a strong focus on common humanity, Cox provides a fresh perspective on the Asian-corporate trope common to cyberpunk.

This novel is the third in The Awakened series. As such this review might overwrite your surprise buffers in places.

Twenty-fifth century Japan is a fusion of ultra-tech and neo-feudalism: CEOs rule prefectures guarded by vibrokatana-wielding samurai and virtual-reality dragons. Possessing both exceptional physical prowess and the ability to psychically influence technology, Mamoru Saitō is Matsushita Electronics Corporation’s leading samurai in and out of cyberspace. However, when a mysterious hacker frames him for crimes against his master, he is cast out and dishonoured.

As with the previous volumes, this book deals with its protagonist discovering they are one of the Awakened, possessing psychic powers orders of magnitude greater than society realises exist, and the attempts of the Archon to recruit them into his post-human nation project. However, unlike the previous volumes, Mamoru is a member of the élite within a highly advanced and convoluted society rather than someone trapped at the bottom of a dystopia; as such both the attempts to recruit him and his personal goals are vastly different.

Born into a culture where superhuman feats have been the expected result of piety and training for centuries, Mamoru is particularly resistant to Archon’s claims he is a new, better version of humanity. While this does introduce a thread of mysticism, Cox handles this delicately, avoiding both the genre-weakening psionics-as-magic and the stereotypical all-Asians-are-martial-arts-masters.

In addition to the ongoing series arc of Awakened finding (or rejecting) their place in society, the novel contains a complete personal arc for Mamoru. Thus – while some events are likely to lack necessary context – readers can enjoy it without having read the previous volumes.

Based on genuine Japanese history rather than the usual tropes of Western cyberpunk, Cox’s Japan is – while objectively more authentic – likely to seem more alien to many readers. However, Cox skilfully balances flavour with common experience, preventing this potential cultural difference from forming a barrier.

This balance is especially noticeable once Mamoru flees the anachronistic society of the Matsushita prefecture for the more Westernised fringes of Japanese society and beyond. Making full use of his protagonist’s mix of competence and cultural inexperience, Cox both seamlessly inserts explanations of new technologies and cultures, and reframes aspects of previous volumes.

Mamoru is an engaging character. Too honourable to reject his culture or his assigned role within it, but too compassionate to take pleasure in his high status, he is torn between the need to fight injustice and the need to preserve a rigid social order.

The supporting cast are similarly nuanced, displaying shared cultural traits while remaining individuals with complex motivations.

Perhaps ironically this complexity is least evident in recurring characters from previous volumes. While they do develop, much of their presence is the culmination of events that occurred before this book started; as such, readers who are unfamiliar with those books might find some characters less engaging.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel greatly. I recommend it to readers seeking a futuristic thriller with an immersive world.

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for a fair review.

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