I really, really, really wanted to like The Art of Arrow Cutting a lot better than I actually did. I wanted to love this book, and ended up thinking it was mostly just okay. All of the elements for a truly cool story are there: a magical charm that enables whomever possesses it to will a desired situation into being; a horde of Japanese demons in the employ of a ruthless Yakuza; lots of hairs-breadth escapes and martial arts whupass.
Still, I came out of this book thinking it never reached its full potential. It's all right, it's fun, it has the tongue-in-cheek attitude this kind of tale requires; but it never takes the humor aspect as far as, say, any number of Jackie Chan's better flicks (I really dislike using movies as a frame of reference for judging books, but in the case of this novel it's impossible not to). In order to make an action fantasy work, you've either got to pile on the suspense and make it truly white-knuckle terrifying, or pile on the goofiness and make it a shameless romp. Dedman incorporates bits of both approaches but only goes about 50% on each of them, making for a book that, while briskly readable, still is neither as tense nor as funny as it needs to be.
Michelangelo Magistrale, aka Mage, (and how's that for a name!) is a young drifter in a small Canadian town, on his way to wherever the Greyhound will take him. He meets a disturbed young babe looking lost and frightened at the terminal who gives him a key before hopping the bus to Calgary. After a nasty scrape with Tucker, a hired hitman pursuing the girl, Mage makes his own way to Calgary in search of her. There, he takes up with Takumo, a young unemployed Japanese-American stuntman. One night, at the youth hostel where the two of them are crashing, they are viciously attacked by a bakemono, a Japanese demon who is nothing but a disembodied pair of hands and head. After fighting it off, they act a little more glibly about it than I might have. Takumo then discovers that the key can open any lock he puts it to, and can probably do other things as well; Mage has had no luck finding the girl, so the two men head down to L.A., where Mage suddenly finds himself under arrest for her murder and facing extradition back to Canada.
It turns out that the key is being sought by Tamenaga, a Japanese business tycoon who is also one of the Yakuza's most ruthless overlords. Tamenaga will stop at nothing to get "the focus," and begins sending hitmen, and worse (demons) after Mage and Takumo.
It sounds damn near impossible to screw a cool idea like this up, and Dedman doesn't, by any means. It's just that the story never kicked into overdrive for me, as I felt it needed to. The story's never funny enough, so that when we see Tucker — a hitman so inept he always manages to get his ass kicked when confronting his intended target — rather than laughing, I found myself wondering why a Yakuza as wealthy, resourceful and relentless as Tamenaga would employ such a moron. The story also never takes the horror elements as far as it needs to, either, inappropriately defusing tension with weak humor. Following their initial run-in with the bakemono, Mage and Takumo plan little more than to keep searching for the missing girl, and to stop by the library to look up what kind of creature attacked them. (I would probably be booking the first flight to Zimbabwe.) It's as if Dedman is trying to turn these guys into a road-company Scully and Mulder.
And that assessment probably puts a finger right on this novel's principal flaw: that it is, despite the cleverness of its premise and stylish execution, so thoroughly influenced by TV pop culture, cheesy martial arts movies, what have you, that you find yourself thinking about those influences while you read the book more than you think about the book itself. And the book doesn't measure up to the best examples of what it wants to be compared to. As it is, I read The Art of Arrow Cutting as if I were watching one of those movies late at night on TNT hosted by Joe Bob Briggs. Particularly during its climax, which is a pastiche on every martial arts movie "showdown" ending there has ever been since Enter the Dragon. (Not to mention the say-what!? final paragraph.)
That said, The Art of Arrow Cutting does have many worthy elements. The simple inclusion of Japanese demons gets this book high marks on any coolness-meter. It just could have been so much, so much more. Despite its action scenes, I never had anything other than the shallowest involvement in the story or its characters. Still, I think Stephen Dedman has an exciting career ahead of him as a novelist, and I await his next novel with enthusiasm.