A while back I was mailing back and forth with one of the blog readers here and he asked me which novels I liked, specifically those related to self defense or martial arts. It didn’t really take long for me to answer as I have my preferred authors. Here’s a list and I’ll explain why.
- The John Rain series by Barry Eisler. Barry’s a friend of mine and I had a great time teaching him private classes several times. He’s a judo black belt and a pretty good wrestler. His background shines through in the Rain series, as you’ll be able to read: John Rain is a half-American, half–Japanese hit man specialized in making it look like his targets died of natural causes. The books are always a great mix of a good plot, exotic locations (extremely good descriptions on these!), trade craft, fight scenes and like Barry says “Hot, steamy sex.” What’s not to like? :-) Here are the relevant parts:
- The fight scenes always incorporate a solid grasp of reality: Rain fights for keeps and ends it as soon as possible, preferably by ambushing his opponents.
- Sometimes, he goes up against other professionals and has more of a duel on his hands than an actual self defense situation. Barry still tries to keep it real in those situations.
- A big part of the books explains the counter-measures Rain uses to avoid getting killed: awareness, procedures, etc. Scale them down for the average civilian and they’re pretty good.
- The best part about the series is how Barry explores the mind set of such a hit man: the good, the bad, the ugly. But more importantly, he lets his character evolve and grow way beyond what you expect when you start the series.
- The Anita Blake series by Laurell .K. Hamilton. I like vampires. Always have. This series covers the adventures of Anita Blake, necromancer and vampire executioner. The premise of the books is simple: Same world as ours but the monsters are real: vampires, zombies, werewolves, they all exist. And they’ve received legal rights just like us humans, which makes for some interesting dynamics. I’ve enjoyed these books for years even though the last couple were a bit too focused on sex. Yup, I’m complaining that there’s too much sex in them. Go figure… But here’s the good stuff:
- Anita is petite and fights accordingly. Even though she tries to compensate by working out regularly, she can’t out-muscle the bad guys or monsters so she “cheats” every chance she gets.
- As a result, she uses weapons a lot. At first it’s mainly firearms but she becomes more proficient at edged weapons throughout the series.
- She starts out specialized in judo, which makes sense for a small women: guys grab her all the time. Later on, she learns Kenpo to add to her tactical choices. Makes perfect sense.
- My preference for the character is because she becomes ruthless and tainted by all the killing she has to do. Very few people can kill repeatedly without psychological damage and Anita Blake is no different. What is black and white early on in the series turns into shades of grey later on. Hamilton forces many conflicts of morals and ethics on her leading lady and it’s nice to see some reality here.
- The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. Harry Dresden lives in a similar universe than Anita Blake with one crucial difference: Joe Public doesn’t know monsters and magic are real. Harry is a wizard and private investigator, specializing in the occult obviously. He’s a film noir-type hero, tortured soul and all, which in my opinion only makes him more fun in his reactions to the situations he runs into. What I like:
- He’s always up against stronger (both physically and magically) opponents. So he needs to be smart about fighting, which usually means he runs like crazy. It’s rare to see fictional heroes use this much common sense when confronted against a stronger adversary.
- He gets beat up a lot. That’s how real fighting goes; it often hurts, even when you win.
- He learns from previous fights. Despite some consistent flaws (he hates fighting women and gets clobbered for it) in his combat mind set, Dresden wants to survive the fights he ends up in. As the books progress, he learns martial arts and finds better ways to fight by improving on what he did in the past. Or by avoiding costly mistakes.
- Dresden has a dark side. He’s no squeaky clean comic book hero. Dresden is tempted as hell to go to the “dark side” and fights for his sanity at times. Again, a nice touch of realism.
- Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. The Discworld series takes too long to explain so check out this page for more info. This book is one of my all time favorites as far as fiction goes. The protagonist, city watch commander Sam Vimes, is transported back in time and gets to teach his younger self how to be a police officer. This book is a must read if you’re a LEO or into self defense and martial arts. Here’s why:
- Sam Vimes is a grizzled veteran of a cop. He learned to survive the job by becoming meaner and nastier than every thug he faces. In the bad parts of our world, and increasingly in the less bad parts, this is what it takes to stay alive.
- He has street smarts and uses them constantly: just like a hustler distracts and confuses his marks, so does Vimes with his enemies. He tricks them or fools them into underestimating him. And then he sets them up in a no-win scenario.
- Vimes fights dirty by default. He strikes first and hard without thinking. The very notion of “fighting fair” is alien to him.
- This book, more than any other of the series, delves into the psychological cost of violence and law enforcement. It is one of the best fiction works on the darkness that comes with the job, how LEOs can be forced to plunge into the abyss and then struggle to keep their moral compass.
Now obviously, all these books are just works of fiction. They’re not meant to be instructional, they’re supposed to be entertaining so please don’t take everything in them literally. These are still all works of fiction. The point is that you can learn something from them even if that’s not the original intent. Mostly, the lessons are about mindset:
- How to think about violence.
- How to fight to survive, instead of how to score points.
- How to “cheat”, get the job done and go home in one piece.
Sometimes, it’s about tactics or techniques:
- Barry explains ambush and counter-ambush tactics extensively in the Rain series.
- Sam Vimes is the perfect example of how to survive a street fight when you can’t escape: strike first, hard and cover it with deception.
Regardless, all these books are fun to read and gave me loads of joy as I was sitting in airports, waiting for clients or anywhere else I happened to have these books with me. Feel free to share which ones you like and why in the comments section.