In the 1980s, Asian martial arts and mysticism were a very popular motif in men’s adventure books and movies. I have entire shelves of novels from that era about lethal ninja assassins, sinister Eastern mystics and Western martial arts masters trained in the East, usually combined with a larger geopolitical narrative involving payback from World War II, the Vietnam War, or the ambitions of modern-day Japan or China. I am a big fan of this sub-genre, so when I learned about an obscure three-book series about a Western martial arts master and shadow warrior called Chant, I decided to give the first book a read.
“Chant” is the alias of John Sinclair, an almost superhuman character who is like an ultimate 1980s action hero cross between Jason Bourne, Joe Armstrong (American Ninja) and Rambo. His backstory is a familiar one in ninja fiction: a Westerner raised in post-World War II Japan, trained in the most lethal martial arts by Japan’s greatest masters, a man so gifted that he is taken as an apprentice by Master Bai, the sinister Sensei of a sect of ninjas who harness the power of the Black Flame—the inner darkness and passion that breaks the bonds of traditional martial arts honor to produce the ultimate human killing machines. Later, Sinclair enlists in the U.S. military, where he becomes an elite commando who puts his skills to work killing Communists behind enemy lines in Southeast Asia. In the process he becomes a revered hero of the Hmong people of Laos, who are fiercely resisting the brutal Pathet Lao guerrillas. For reasons that are unclear, Sinclair is betrayed by his own commanders and attacked by CIA assassins, but he manages to kill them and escape. From that point on, Sinclair is a Jason Bourne-like fugitive from shadowy elements of the US government—a master assassin who has become expendable.
A decade and a half later, Sinclair learns that some of his beloved Hmong have immigrated to the USA, where they are being enslaved and terribly abused by a very nasty family of rich industrialists called the Baldaufs. With his strong sense of honor and loyalty to the Hmong, who saved his life during the war, Sinclair goes on the warpath to destroy the Baldaufs and free the Hmong from their tyranny. Sinclair begins hunting down and killing off the industrialists and their henchmen using his superhuman martial arts skills. He employs the clever stratagem of approaching the head of the Baldauf family in the guise of an operative of a secret US agency that wants Sinclair dead, and is willing to help Baldauf for a fee. Sinclair essentially hunts himself with Baldauf’s cooperation, while in the process gaining inside knowledge of the industrialists’ operations so he can more effectively sabotage them.
As all this is going on, Master Bai arrives on the scene, having also been hired by Baldauf to find and eliminate John Sinclair. Bai brings with him three gigantic henchmen and his beautiful granddaughter Soussan, who is as lethal as she is seductive. Chant finds himself irresistibly attracted to Soussan, despite knowing that she is probably Bai’s ultimate weapon to destroy him. Because Bai is not simply out to kill Sinclair for rejecting the Black Flame cult, but to prove its superiority by defeating Chant in an elaborate mental and martial arts contest. The whole thing gets a little ridiculous at this point, as Chant is challenged to defeat Bai’s henchmen, Soussan, and Bai himself, on the threat of his Hmong friends being killed. What follows is a series of staged combats with each henchman, interspersed with Chant’s inner confusion about whether Soussan is a sinister seductress or a sincerely changed woman who wants only to be with Chant and leave the Black Flame behind. The twist ending is violent, melodramatic, ridiculous and mystical, much like this book.
Chant is well-written pulp fiction that reminds me of an Eric van Lustbader novel of that era, at a fraction of the length and with the unnecessary subplots and pretentious writing stripped out. Which should make for a good read. And Chant is a pretty good read, if you don’t mind characters who are too over the top, too skilled, too good and too evil to take seriously. Sinclair is very impressive, but he lacks charisma and never really makes you care about him—he’s like a colder, more brutal and inhuman Mack Bolan. I mean, Mack has no compunctions about blowing away bad guys Dirty Harry-style, but Sinclair takes it to another level, gruesomely murdering people (even puppies!) in a manner usually reserved for villains. He may have a sense of honor, but he also has a streak of Master Bai’s Black Flame still burning in his soul that allows him to kill without mercy. Anyway, if you’re a sucker for this genre like me you’ll probably enjoy this book despite its flaws.
Get a copy of Chant here.