An action-adventure fantasy romp featuring sword lesbians, sea battles, and a grumpy wolf spirit.
Torako has done many things to protect the valley that she calls home, but she’s never looted a corpse before. So when the katana she steals off the still-cooling body of a bandit turns out to be possessed by a grumpy wolf kami, she can only assume it’s because she’s somehow angered the spirits. An impression that’s only reinforced when she returns home to find her wife abducted and her daughter in hiding. But angry spirits or no, Torako isn’t about to let bandits run off with the love of her life, even if it means taking their 3 year old on a rescue mission.
In all Kaiyo’s years as Captain of the Wind Serpent she has never once questioned her admiral’s orders. So when she receives the command to abduct a civilian scribe with the help of fifteen felons, she registers her objections, but does as she is bid. Yet, as the mission unfolds, Kaiyo finds herself questioning everything from her loyalties to her convictions.
As Torako and Kaiyo’s fates cross like dueling blades, their persistence is matched only by their fury, until they uncover a series of truths they may never be ready to accept.
Sairo’s Claw is the third installment in Virginia McClain’s Gensokai series, though each book is a standalone set in the same universe. I have not read the first two, but this book is adventurous and fun, with interesting storylines and complex, nuanced characters.
It is easy to recognize why Sairo’s Claw is a character-driven novel: McClain writes characters so well. I probably should not make such big generalizations, seeing as how this is the first book I have read from this author, but they are so deep and colorful – so full of life – that it is hard to imagine a book where McClain’s characters were not super compelling. I do not often call characters “compelling”, usually saving that qualifier for plot constructs. But, it is a fitting description for the character set of Sairo’s Claw. Torako, Raku, and Kaiyo are the main protagonists (it would be easy to call Kaiyo an antagonist, and maybe by strict definition she is, but not for me as I look at her side of things) of the story, each with their own narrative arc. Torako and Raku’s love for family is only matched by Kaiyo’s sense of duty. Each character’s journey is really emotional and burdensome, yet they push on out of a sense of love and loyalty. That is what makes it so compelling, the fact that both main characters on each side of the conflict are easy to connect with. Of course, Sairo (the aforementioned “grumpy wolf spirit”) is another character who has a big effect on the story, too. They were interesting and brought some earnestness to the story, which I think balanced things out well. Of course, there were other characters that fill important roles: Itachi, who is Torako and Raku’s daughter and is someone who helps the couple stay grounded; Kitsu, who is a mysterious convict that assists Kaiyo with her mission; and Tanaka, Kaiyo’s loyal first mate who manages to get tangled up in her family’s affairs. Every one of these characters brings some level of intrigue to the story, and I cannot say enough about them.
It is really clear that McClain put a lot of thought into representation, as well. First of all, there are so many female characters in commanding positions, making decisions, and unapologetically leading the way. The best part about it is that the author’s writing is so good as to build a world where this is not abnormal, so normalizing women in positions of power. There are people with non-binary pronouns, as well. One character identifies as “they/them” and another indentifies “xe/xir”, and, again, it is not something that is brought up as atypical in this world. And, as the synopsis mentions, “sword lesbians”, which I think is just lesbians with swords, unless I am missing something in that phrase. I love the f/f representation; in fact, I enjoyed the fact that the character set was so diverse. It is another level of depth to an already-complex cast.
I do want to mention the story itself. First of all, I like the fact that it is Japanese-inspired. I enjoy Japanese culture, so that is a quick way to draw me in. It appears as though the author tried to be respectful of the culture, as well, which I can appreciate. As for the narrative itself, it is split into 3 (or maybe 2.5, depending on how you characterize Torako, as she is often with another MC), with each one being an adventure. There are sword fights and sea battles, clashes with animals, magic, and some family drama. The story spans the map, as well, with McClain giving the characters (and readers), a view of different types of landscapes. This is a tried and true way to keep my interest as a reader, not only with diversity of characters but with varying topography. Each type of terrain comes with its own fascinating aspects that add to the drama.
The last third of the book gets a little chaotic, as storylines come together and plans start to unravel. This part was somewhat hot and cold for me, as I enjoy a little mayhem in my fantasy. I did like how things came together, though certain parts felt kind of forced at times and a little random. I liked the ending, though.
Overall, I was really happy with having read this book. Sairo’s Claw is an adventurous, whimsical journey full of captivating, charming characters that captured my attention and held it until the end. I am excited to pick up the first two books in the Gensokai series and read more from this universe.