BOOK REVIEW: Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the land of Shima, a hunter’s daughter on a quest with her father forms an unlikely bond with a Griffin and sets off a chain reaction of events to threaten the Shogunate.
PROS: Original blend of feudal Japan and steampunk. Excellent engagement with themes under-explored in Steampunk.
CONS: Writing needs a fair bit of polish and tightening, character development needs some fine-tuning.
BOTTOM LINE: Japanese Steampunk unafraid to engage with the dark side of the subgenre. The Lotus must bloom!
Most of the steampunk written in this day and age use British and American settings, characters and worlds. In those cases where the world is not explicitly our own, the secondary world’s trappings are if not American or British, certainly Western European in flavor, tone, and delineation. With some notable exceptions (such as the work of Cherie Priest and Mark Hodder), much of the steampunk written is very much a mode or a skin that doesn’t engage with the dark side and the consequences of Victorian society. The problems and challenges of nineteenth century industrialization are often unexamined or ignored, such as child labor, environmental degradation of the water and the air, the social problems of Empire and the role and status of women.
Stormdancer, billed as the first book in The Lotus War, aims to strike at the heart of those limitations. Set in Shima, a secondary world nation whose culture and society borrow from feudal-era Japan, Stormdancer features a Shogun, and several powerful Clans, named after spirit animals, who scheme and plot for power and influence, and samurai, who follow the bushido code. Plus steampunk chainsaw weapons, firearms, powerful armor, environmental armor, airships, and more. The melding of the feudal Japanese political situation with steampunk technology is impressive. However, the author takes on some of the issues mentioned above head on. The steampunk in this world is based on a toxic flower called the blood lotus; the nastiest sort of plant imaginable, poisoning the very ground that it grows upon. This results in a continual deforestation and turn over of land to the lotus, to fuel an expansionistic imperialistic war effort against an unseen and unspecified overseas gaijin antagonist. Lotus has other uses as well, including being the base of a powerful and addicting drug. “The Lotus must bloom” is the motto of the guild that sees to the care and growth of the Lotus, and they mean it at all costs. And those costs to the health and well being of the people and land of Shima are unflinchingly shown.
This exploration of themes and the costs of a society dominated by Steampunk are some of the best things I found in the novel. Stormdancer itself is the story of Yukiko, daughter of a hunter under the auspices of the Shogun. She winds up accompanying her father on a quest to find an arashitora, a griffin, long believed extinct. The Shogun has had a vision of leading the final victory against the gaijin on the back of one, and despite the fact that wild animals of any kind are scarce, the penalty for failing is extremely high. So Yukiko travels into the wild in search of the impossible, and finds it, but that is just the beginning of the problems for herself and those she loves.
Yukiko as a character is the other highlight of the novel for me, which develops her well. A ‘coming of age’ story, she grows from being the daughter of a hunter to a powerful force in her own right. The different enviroments we see her in, ranging from an airship to the intrigues of the Shogun’s court, nicely show off, grow and develop different aspects of her personality. Some key flashbacks fill in the gaps and slowly reveal a complete picture. Her bond with Buruu, too, showing how her relationship with the griffin grows and changes, is another highlight of the novel as well.
However, this is a first novel and the inexperience does show in some key respects. The nuts and bolts writing of Stormdancer, in my opinion, needs some polish and working. Sometimes there is too much description, and too much repeated description, making the book not as lean and trim as it might be. Despite a flash-forward prologue with a bit of action, the novel itself does take some time to build and really find its footing in terms of the writing and story beats. Plus, some of the character beats feel underdone. Just why Yukiko gets to go on such a crucial mission is not really explained that well. The bond with Kuruu is understandable and well developed from her point of view, but from the Griffin’s, much less so, especially given the circumstances of its formation. Also, a few characters beyond Yukiko are a bit too much caricature for my taste, especially the antagonists. Some key bits of the worldbuilding remain somewhat unexplained as well.
Even flawed, it’s a worthy effort, and the novel was entertaining for the ride it provided. There are things I would like to see explored in a sequel, if and when the author writes it, especially with the experience of this novel under his belt.
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