MAY 13, 2020
WHEN WE FIRST meet Lily Wong, the protagonist of Tori Eldridge’s The Ninja Daughter, she is in an empty, desolate building, hanging from a platform, sardonically addressing her Ukrainian tormentor in a bid to extend her life and interrupt the pain of his swinging rope.
As the Ukrainian thug mulls his choice from the multiple weapons displayed, we hold our collective breath. How in heaven’s name is the title character going to get out of this? Is this going to be one of these painful, retrospective novels where everything is told in prolonged flashbacks?
Nope. Lily thinks:
The last time I had experienced this particular kind of pain had been from my teacher’s palm. […] The Ukrainian had unwittingly bound me in the best possible position for solar plexus recovery: arms up, chest open. Who knew hanging from the base of a platform with a metal cross support pressed against my back could be so helpful?
Within a few pages and with stunning acrobatic ability, our protagonist is literally off the hook and running.
Lily Wong, it seems, is an avenging angel. Within the first handful of chapters, we find out the appalling series of events that set her on course: one night five and a half years earlier, when Lily was a UCLA student, she didn’t respond to a text from her 15-year-old sister, Rose, asking to be picked up. That night, her sister was murdered.
Lily dropped out of school, immersed herself in her grief, as well as in Chinese Wushu and Japanese ninja arts. Two years later, she began to trawl bars and night spots looking for the murderer. Sensing her sister’s murderer would have a type, she threw herself out as bait — and didn’t recognize him when he came for her.
But why the confrontation with the Ukrainian? Because Lily Wong isn’t just out for one-time revenge. She aspires to be “a protector of women,” helping her shelter-running friends by transporting and protecting victims of domestic abuse. In this case, the grim Ukrainian had abducted her on orders of his boss, Dmitry Romanko; Lily was being tortured to reveal the whereabouts of Romanko’s wife and child, a duo she had recently escorted to a safe house.
Racing back to the safe house, Lily finds that the abused wife and child are no longer there — they have instead returned to the Romanko household. Lily is rightfully aghast, and sets out to find Katerina and her son, but is unable to convince the freshly bruised woman to return to safety.
At other times, being a protector of women means first finding those in need. Depressed by her failure with the Romankos, she cheers herself up with thoughts of helping someone else, and finds lurid coverage on Mia Mikkelsen, a cocktail waitress attacked by her customer, J Tran.
Mia, a target of victim shaming, seems an odd choice for Lily Wong’s championing of the underdog. Blonde, a bit smug and entitled, she plays push and pull with Lily, as Lily tries to right her missteps with Katerina’s case by helping Mia after the case against her assailant is dismissed.
From the beginning of the novel, Lily springs onto the page — vital, vibrant, ready to pounce, fully formed, immediately an impressive physical and mental presence. Wong is so athletically fit and restless that she prefers biking scores of miles or hopping public transit or a bike transport-ready ride share to owning a car.
We meet her father, an affectionate American of Norwegian heritage skilled in Chinese cooking. Wong greedily and gratefully receives the dishes he or his staff have ready for her as she returns to her apartment above the restaurant he owns. (A foodie, Wong can recognize the barbecued rib meat in a homemade tamale.) While Wong gets comfort and delicious food from her father, she receives servings of tea and stress from her mother who wants her conventionally settled. This Wong resists and deflects — with the skill of a ninja master, naturally.
Eldridge’s novel is stuffed with action, conflict, and superb pacing. Perhaps part of the reason the depictions of violence and martial arts are so compelling is that Tori Eldridge herself holds a fifth-degree black belt in To Shin Do Ninjutsu, and has taught nationally on self-protection for women, weapons, and the ninja arts. The author herself is as bad-ass as her protagonist.
Eldridge, a writer with Chinese, Norwegian, and Hawaiian heritage, gives a nuanced portrayal of her diverse characters. Wong discusses Buddhism as a religion, like her mother believes, or a philosophy, as she tends to believe. “Asian” is a word used to describe so many people on the globe, and Wong breaks some of it down, or opens it up, for the reader as she contemplates her antagonist:
I wondered about his ethnicity. Tran was a common Vietnamese surname. However, it could have been adapted from Chen or Tan. So even if his family had come from Vietnam, they might have been Chinese. And that didn’t discount some Japanese or Korean blood added to this mix. He also had an unusual combination of wide and angular feature with high cheekbones and a dark complexion that could easily have come from a Polynesian, African, Native American or Middle Eastern ancestry.
As Lily reflects on her apartment, upstairs from the family restaurant, she reveals the complexity of her own being:
The wooden folding screen didn’t just separate my dojo from my bedroom, it served as a cultural partition between the Japanese art I studied and the Chinese-Norwegian heritage of my birth. On the dojo side, I could honor my martial way and follow the Shinto practices related to the art. On the other, I could honor my Chinese Buddhist ancestors then wrap myself in the Norwegian Rosemaling quilt my father’s mother had stitched for me. […] Even so, there were times when each of the three cultures pulled so strongly, I couldn’t figure out who I was. So instead, I focused on who I aspired to be: a protector of women.
If I have to quibble, it would be minor notes over Lily’s Olympian cycling endurance, and her ability to conjure up just the right shared ride driver when she needs her. As a native Southern Californian, I’m a wee bit confused about her dad, who lives in Arcadia but owns and runs the family restaurant in Culver City.
But in Lily Wong, Tori Eldridge gives us a protagonist that we will follow anywhere. Verve, wit, occasional self-deprecation with a set of skills and musculature the envy of anyone who’s wished to smack down assailants or rescue the marginalized. The plot — intriguing and engaging — isn’t even the point. It’s Lily Wong we want to watch, it’s Lily Wong we want to spend time with. This novel explodes on every page. An off-the-charts thrilling debut — I cannot wait to read the next in the series.