BIONICLE fans are familiar with Greg Farshtey as author of all the BIONICLE comics, as well as every BIONICLE book published after 2003 (and a few Exo-Force chapter books as well). Now that BIONICLE's over, he has taken the role of creative lead for LEGO Ninjago. But how does his work for this ambitious new theme measure up to his past experience with BIONICLE? Let's take a look!
Title: Kai: Ninja of Fire
Released: September 1, 2011
Author: Greg Farshtey
Price: $4.99 US, $5.99 CAN
The front cover of Kai: Ninja of Fire is exciting and colorful. The LEGO Ninjago banner familiar from the sets is stretched across the top. The picture of Kai which graces it is from the card in the set 2111 Kai, which like all the other card illustrations is very bold and detailed. You can even make out three-dimensional shape of his golden fire badge. The title is loud and striking, with a swirling word bubble promising "Two stories in one!" The Scholastic logo is squeezed onto the bottom.
The back cover has a simpler layout, again starting with the LEGO Ninjago banner. The "Two stories in one!" word bubble also reappears. A short synopsis of the plot appears next to art of Kai from the "Power Up" card also included in set 2111. Below are ads for the three other LEGO Ninjago books released at the same time as this one. Two of them will also be covered in this review, although one has a key difference from the version pictured.
LEGO legal information, the Scholastic logo, and the Scholastic website are featured on the bottom. I find it surprising that neither the LEGO website or the LEGO Ninjago website is advertised on the cover, but the Ninjago site does get mentioned in an ad in the back of the book.
So what does the book include? The Table of Contents enlightens us on this matter. An introduction titled "From the Journal of Sensei Wu" starts you off, followed by a short story titled "In His Footsteps" and an eight-chapter story titled "The Vanished Villagers"
"From the Journal of Sensei Wu" summarizes Kai's backstory and hotheaded personality traits from Sensei Wu's point of view. Most of the information here should already be known to you if you've watched the TV special LEGO Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu. And if you haven't, what's stopping you? Hong Kong Toys 'R' Us has the videos available online for free viewing if you know where to look (The video site in question is illegal to mention here, so do NOT ask me about this in replies or PMs).
This introduction is written in an ornate typeface not used anywhere else in the book. It really suits this as the only section of the book written in the first person.
"In His Footsteps" is a straightforward story. Kai is training with Sensei Wu but is not doing well. Sensei Wu tells Kai some stories about his father to explain why he chose Kai to be his Ninja of Fire.
"The Vanished Villagers" is a much more in-depth story. It takes place some time in the middle of the timeline covered in the Ninjago TV special. Kai and Zane go to the village where Zane was found by Sensei Wu, hoping to find clues to Zane's past. If this is your first Ninjago book, you probably don't know about Zane's mysterious past. But besides his inability to understand jokes and sarcasm, this proves to be his one most defining character trait, and will return to play a key role in the Ninjago.
Flipping through the two story sections, it's easy to tell the book is written for kids. The text is large-print, with large graphical headers opening each chapter, graphics in the corners around the page numbers, and perhaps most surprisingly, certain words emphasized in a large, bold, and off-kilter font. You need to see it to believe it:
Overall, though, the depth of the storytelling is every bit as great as it was with Farshtey's BIONICLE novels. Every character has unique personality traits which are a lot clearer here than they were in the TV special. At the same time, it's easy to imagine every line being spoken by that character's TV voice actor-- everyone remains in-character from beginning to end. Is the story as dark and serious as BIONICLE's so often was? Hardly. The skeletons are just as goofy as they are in the TV special and sets, and any schemes they create are almost Rube Goldbergian in complexity and impracticality. But at the same time, there's lots of suspense and adventure to be found throughout.
The last page, by the way, includes an ad for the LEGO Ninjago Official Guide and Collector's Sticker Book. The Official Guide's blurb advertises that it "includes your very own LEGO Minifigure!" More about that later.
Title: Zane: Ninja of Ice
Released: September 1, 2011
Author: Greg Farshtey
Price: $4.99 US, $5.99 CAN
The cover of this one follows the same formula as the Kai cover. This time, though, it's Zane's card art from set 2113 Zane. It's a matter of perspective whether you prefer the greater contrast this art has against the red top and bottom borders. Personally, I find the cover of Kai's book more stylish. Still, this art is every bit as majestic as Kai's.
The back cover also follows the same formula as the Kai book's back cover, but this time there's a light blue background instead of a light tan. The art is from the "Snow Surfing" cards in sets 2113 and 2257.
This book has three sections: the introduction/bio "From the Journal of Sensei Wu", the short story "Getting the Joke", and the ten-chapter story "The Choice". I'm not taking many photos of this book because the layout is almost exactly the same as that in the Kai book, except with ice symbols every place where Kai's book has fire symbols.
"From the Journal of Sensei Wu" is a lot more useful here, at least for someone who has seen the television special and all the story information on LEGO.com. Once again, the format is a description of Zane's backstory and personality, but this time there's much more mystery to both. He turned up in his home village with no knowledge of where he had come from. His personality, perhaps as a result of this, is unique. He has difficulty understanding sarcasm, jokes, or even emotion. Besides his difficulty with jokes, none of these traits were touched on in the TV special.
"Getting the Joke" is a much more entertaining short story than "In His Footsteps" was. On patrol by himself, Zane matches wits with the oafish skeleton general Nuckal, and challenges his ability to make a joke, with hilarious results. The end result reminds me of certain chapters from the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer, and shows how even absurdly-dense characters like Nuckal can be more entertaining than just a source of slapstick humor.
"The Choice" is an unusually dark and serious story compared to the others mentioned so far. Zane gets involved in a scheme by Lord Garmadon, and there's not much more I can reveal that doesn't reveal plot details. BIONICLE fans, though, will surely enjoy this chapter, as its writing is a testament to the brilliant writing that made the BIONICLE story what it was. It proves that Lord Garmadon is every bit as devious a villain as Makuta Teridax from the BIONICLE story, and there are plenty of the complicated schemes-within-schemes which that character was known for. The conclusion of this story caught me completely by surprise, and it was this story that truly convinced me the Ninjago books are no more childish than the BIONICLE chapter books that preceded them.
Overall, I recommend Zane: Ninja of Ice to anyone who wants a deeper and more fulfilling experience from the Ninjago theme. In addition to the two books I've mentioned, two similar books for the other two ninjas are due for release in January 2012. Keep your eyes peeled for these two books, which will probably include the intriguingly-titled stories "The Dragon's Roar" and "The Real Hero" also seen in two books already published by Polish publisher AMEET.
Title: LEGO Ninjago Official Guide
Released: September 1, 2011
Author: Greg Farshtey
Price: $7.99 US, $8.99 CAN
Alright, although I call this section "The Cover", it's going to start by talking about the contents. Take a look at the cover pictured here (the "Only at Toys 'R' Us" bubble is just a sticker I haven't removed yet).
The book's cover, measuring 9 inches by 6 inches (larger than the two chapter books), contains a stylish graphic of Sensei Wu and the four Ninjas. It's a promotional image also seen many other places, and many of the component pics are just mashed together from card art, but it still has all the sophistication of the other covers. But let's ignore that for a minute. What is not visible on this cover?
That's right. There's no minifigure included with this book! Other than the lack of a minifigure, the guide book seems almost identical to the one shown on the back covers of the other two books. According to Amazon.co.uk, the one with the minifigure's due for release in January 2012. One wonders if that means there will be other differences, besides the bonus fig. There are a couple of errors in this edition which I hope would get corrected by that time.
The back cover features the art from the card "Finders Keepers" found in set 2256 Lord Garmadon. Very stylish. You're going to get very used to seeing zoomed-in card art after reading this book. A brief synopsis appears right below the art, followed by the regular LEGO and Scholastic corporate info.
The first difference you're likely to notice between this book and the two others, upon opening the book, is that this book is printed in full color on glossy paper. The book begins with an introduction, followed by several sections with deeper information on particular parts of the Ninjago universe.
Inside, the text is still large and easy-to-read. Some words are still in a differently-colored bold font for emphasis, just like in the chapter books, but none are off-kilter like in the other two books. Additionally, the bonus story at the end is almost entirely without these bolded words, somewhat inverting the style used in the other two books.
Anyway, the introduction reveals to us that most of this book (besides the bonus story) will be described by Sensei Wu. "The Legend of Ninjago" then describes the backstory for the theme: how the father of Wu and Garmadon created the four weapons of Spinjitzu and the world, and how Garmadon betrayed Wu and was cast into the underworld.
The book is full of high-quality card art, so much so that it would be pointless to try naming all the cards the art comes from. In the "Characters" section, naturally, each character's bio begins with that character's card art. Unfortunately, this means the book doesn't include the character card art of the black-robed Sensei Wu, nor does it include the character card art of the DX ninjas. What it does include is the character art of Samukai, which is otherwise rather hard to find-- he doesn't have a proper poster of this art on the Ninjago website, nor does he have an actual character card.
Each character bio also includes an additional piece of card art, a fact box with up to six facts about each character (which can be different for each one-- some may have a favorite color listed and others may not), and a "Ninja Notes" box with additional trivia about the characters. The exception to this trend is Samukai, who doesn't appear on any card art. Instead, his bio includes a rather egregious preliminary photo of him facing off against a prototype Zane minifigure.
Also in the realm of weird errors, all the character traits of Kruncha and Nuckal are reversed. A similar mistake occurred this year in the Hero Factory theme-- some story information would have character traits for the heroes Nex and Evo reversed. In that case, the reason was that the characters had their names switched between the initial story conception and the final story that appeared in TV specials. I wonder if something similar occurred here.
However, there is still a lot of new information in this guide book. For instance, we learn some actual information about the roles and personalities of the four skeleton soldiers who had not previously been identified by name in story materials. For instance, Bonezai is a "mad scientist" character who comes up with all the skeleton vehicles, while Chopov is the skeletons' chief mechanic. This book also shares info on other characters which was largely absent from the Ninjago website, such as mention of Zane's mysterious past and the skeleton general Wyplash's role as a spy for the skeleton army. This last fact is somewhat amusing when you consider his absence from the Ninjago TV special (although he appears in a couple of the two-minute mini movies from the Ninjago website)-- it's alluded to that even the other skeletons aren't sure when he's around, leading my brother to joke that "he's a better ninja than the actual ninjas!"
The "Dragons" section describes the mysterious nature of the dragons, only alluded to in the TV special. According to the book, they may come from another dimension, explaining why they are capable of traveling between the world of Ninjago and the underworld. They are also extremely wise, and each Ninja tamed their dragon for the fight against Garmadon in a unique way suited to their character. I expect the taming of the Lightning Dragon, at least, will appear in other books: the short story from AMEET's Jay book is titled "The Dragon's Roar", which seems to tie in nicely with the description in this book of how Jay tamed the Lightning Dragon.
The "Skeleton Vehicles" section features some specifications for the vehicles, but nothing that really plays a significant role in the story. There are also some anecdotes about each vehicle.
The "Becoming a Ninja" section is entertaining, but doesn’t reveal any useful story details-- it just describes some of the values Sensei Wu tried to instill into his four elemental ninja. It also shares some of his training techniques. The "Spinjitzu" section that follows it is a simple FAQ about the art of Spinjitzu, though it reveals some new facts such as that the skeletons were, in fact, trained in Spinjitzu by Lord Garmadon. This is something that's been somewhat ambiguous elsewhere (they never use Spinjitzu in the TV special or online mini-movies), so it's good to know that the spinners for skeleton characters actually make some sense in the story.
The "Dragons", "Skeleton Vehicles", "Becoming a Ninja", "Spinjitzu", “Four Weapons of Spinjitzu”, and "Locations" sections don't have much in the way of card art-- almost all of the art is from the sets, although there are several screenshots from the TV special (particularly in the Locations section). The only problem I’ve found with any of these sections is that the picture of the Nunchuks of Lightning actually depicts the one-handled weapon of Zane DX, not the Nunchuks of Lightning themselves. Of course, the Nunchuks of Lightning have been built inconsistently in sets anyway.
Finally, there is the short story “Ice Ambush.” It is mostly just an expanded version of how the four ninja retrieved the Shurikens of Ice as shown in the TV special. It is not nearly as interesting as the stories in the more dedicated “storybooks”, in my personal opinion, but it still a much richer experience than the mostly dialogue-free scene it is based on.
The book ends with a somewhat cliché-sounding conclusion about how the future of the land of Ninjago is uncertain and its fate is in your hands. But overall, the book is great fun—the fantastic artwork plays a key role in it—and fulfills a similar function to similar BIONICLE guide books from years past. With that in mind, I can’t say that it would be nearly as enjoyable to someone who wasn’t already a dedicated fan of the theme. Its presentation of story information in the form of brief tidbits isn’t nearly as rich or immersive as the storytelling style of the other two books, even though it is a lot more enlightening with regards to the Ninjago story than any of the web resources on LEGO.com.
Overall, I would recommend all of the Ninjago books to either LEGO fans already interested in the theme or BIONICLE fans looking for an engaging and well written story. Although chronologically the stories in Kai: Ninja of Fire come first, I’d personally recommend starting with Zane: Ninja of Ice. It’s the most thrilling of the books and will be a good place to test to see if the stories actually appeal to you. It also gives you a deeper understanding of Zane’s character than either of the other books.
Ninjago doesn’t often seem to be recognized for being a successor to BIONICLE. When it is, it’s usually in a negative light, with BIONICLE fans unable to see why TLG is treating this phenomenon as the biggest thing since BIONICLE. But Ninjago truly has the potential to be every bit as great as BIONICLE was in terms of storytelling, especially under Greg Farshtey’s creative direction. One only hopes that the upcoming television series and future books live up to the standard the theme has already established for itself!
Edited by Aanchir: Rachira of Time, Oct 26 2011 - 07:24 PM.