a review by Nalini Haynes
The Last Spirit Warrior opens with Jamie Reign, a 12 year old half-Chinese half-European boy whose white father, Hector, is a violent drunk. Jamie isn’t allowed to attend school, he can’t read or write, but he’s skilled at operating a tugboat to salvage ships and rescue people.
Living in an isolated village, Jamie knows all the locals. Feng Chow is twice Jamie’s age and is heavily into kung fu, hopeful that he’ll be ‘discovered’ and get out of the village. Mrs Chow runs a café where the locals meet. The local fishermen despise Jamie because of Hector’s and Jamie’s profession, taking boats in distress away from their owners instead of focusing on rescue. Jamie is friends with the local kids but feels that he’s being left behind while they learn to read and write.
Xavier Elite, a private school nearby (not for mutants, REALLY), runs cross-country training through the area, so Jamie meets the school bullies. Lucy, a wealthy girl who attends Xavier Elite, intervenes but isn’t always there.
A stranger, Mr Fan, comes to town; he’s looking for something. He tests Jamie with mixed results.
Jade, another girl about Jamie’s age, seems angry, resentful, of Mr Fan’s interest in Jamie.
The bad guys show up, searching for a spirit warrior…
The Last Spirit Warrior is written by an Australian author who met Jackie Chan and spent six months working on boats and barges in Hong Kong. Although heavily Eastern in flavour, there are cultural flaws in the Last Spirit Warrior such as family names put last instead of first. The Eastern tradition of putting family names before individual names has deep implications for their culture that, to some extent, plays out in this novel.
Tierney’s experience working on the boats and barges definitely shines through in this novel: the vivid detail with which she describes the boat scenes is unmistakably drawn from real life.
Jamie is largely rejected by his village because of his bi-racial heritage (Chinese AND European). Many readers will identify with Jamie: readers of bi-racial heritage, readers who are disabled, readers who have varied sexual orientations or fail to conform in other ways. Other people’s expectations of Jamie are quite low because of his heritage.
And, may I say, KUDOS to Tierney for writing a not-pure-white lead character with most but not all of the other characters being Chinese. While a leetle bit cliché in that the Last Spirit Warrior is very Karate Kid, it’s more the remake than the American original. In my opinion, this is one time where the remake was worthwhile; although I loved the original, seeing the remake’s Kung Fu, the setting, the culture, the EVERYTHING, was just wonderful. The remake was a bit twee in that the remake featured an African American as the lead in a story set in China, but at least it was an African American lead instead of a white boy.
The Last Spirit Warrior captures the Western imagination with the Eastern setting, just like with Karate Kid. Jamie was born in China and grew up in this fishing village, making him more oriental although, written by a white woman, the story is relatable for Western readers.
(I’ve read some Eastern stories where I’ve been like ‘WTF?!’ because the expectations and morals of those stories seem so alien or, worse still, SO WRONG to me with my Western viewpoint.)
Representations of Gender
Looking back now I’m not sure if the Last Spirit Warrior passes the Bechdel test (two named females talking about something other than the males without the males present). Xavier Elite seemed to be an all-boys school with Lucy as the only girl; this seemed really odd and, if there had been more girls, the sexes could have been more balanced. However, the Last Spirit Warrior redeems itself with Lucy and Jade, kick-ass girls, thinking and acting independently as well as helping the boys.
There are a few other female roles, such as Wing’s mum who cooks for the school, and Feng’s mum who is less than nurturing but pours Jamie tea and intervenes when the fishermen bully him.
I asked for recommendations for contemporary Australian fantasy with Asian mythological influences; Braiden Asciak recommended the Last Spirit Warrior. This novel follows the archetypal Hero’s Journey with an engaging plot, a dash of mystery and characters with layers. Last Spirit Warrior is partly influenced by Asian mythology and partly influenced by Western mythology about Asian mythology as in the Karate Kid movies.
Jamie Reign: the Last Spirit Warrior is aimed at children aged 9 to 12. Rich language is used rather than catering to the lowest common denominator so this novel will possibly expand children’s vocabulary. Although the central characters are children, this story’s depth, vivid descriptions, mystery and engaging plot can appeal to adults as well. Highly recommended.