* * *
Back in the mid-eighties, when I was just a boy, I got to read an epic quest about a ninja out to avenge the death of his foster father, and it has influenced my writing ever since.
The series was The Way of the Tiger, set on the world of Orb, and it was in my opinion the best gamebook series of its time, combining a strong narrative and interesting characterisation in a genre that was typically weak at both. From these books I learned about distilling key information into short paragraphs, about creating interesting and varied characters, about building a seemingly straight forward situation into an epic quest, and about building a deep and varied world.
In the main character called Avenger, the reader gets to play as a powerful ninja, the master of his art. Such a character would typically be too powerful to evoke much empathy, but Avenger lived in a world that contained monstrous evil, and had such a difficult task ahead of him that even with his all his power he was still vulnerable. His quest was also deeply personal, and it was easy to get caught up in his story and want him to succeed, quite regardless of the game element of the book. Crucially though you still got to feel (and more importantly enjoy) the sense of power in the character, who could dispatch minor henchmen easily or slip past guards like a shadow.
Without a doubt the many eastern influences of ninja and samurai in the series influenced me in writing my Samurai’s Apprentice series. The Way of the Tiger also introduced a spiritual aspect to the books, where Avenger would receive dream visions from the gods, or have a spiritual battle with a demon in a meditative trance. Simply put, it was deeper than other gamebooks of the time. This influenced me in my book Dragonwarrior: Tao of Shadow, where warrior monks fought a spiritual battle against corruption in their use of chi powers.
It was only in writing my own fantasy novel City of Masks that I came to realise how difficult it is to create a detailed and believable fantasy world. This led me to be even more impressed that Mark Smith created the detailed Way of the Tiger world of Orb whilst still at school, and it was used as a compelling backdrop to a dozen or so gamebooks. Orb was a fun place to explore and a good place to spend time in.
Lastly, as a reader, it is hard to ignore the quality of the writing in the Way of the Tiger series. It had a use of language that did not appear in many other commercially successful gamebooks of the time that I read.
Here you did not just get a god of Time, but a ‘Snowfather; Eldest Father, Youngest Son; He From Whose Ravages None is Immune’. Avenger’s god Kwon wasn’t just the god of monks, but the ‘Ineffable Master of Unarmed Combat’. You got to travel to cities such as ‘the Spires of Foreshadowing’, and you got to fight an Elder God whose ‘smell of putrefaction suggests that its thick hide is sloughing off in great dead patches’. You got to experience first-hand the heart-pounding tension of being a ninja on a secret mission. ‘As the wind whistles around the turrets of the Great Keep there is a sudden keening howl. For an instant the hairs on the back of your neck prickle with fear, until you realise that it is only the wind howling through an arrow-slit in one of the turrets’.
I came to the realisation quite young that however much I wanted to be like Avenger, I could not become a ninja in real life. Instead though I became the next best thing – a writer who writes about ninja.