Monday, September 3, 2012

Review of Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff Book One of the Lotus War Trilogy

Kitsune Yukiko has lead an extremely difficult life for such a young woman.  Her mother has run off, her brother died and she now has to watch over her drug addicted father Masaru. If that were not bad enough, her father has been sent on a mission by the Shōgun of Shima to do the impossible - hunt an arashitora, which are thought to be extinct.  They manage to do the impossible and catch an arashitora, but unfortunately, their airship crashes leaving Yukiko no idea of whether her father has lived or died and alone with an arashitora who initially has no interest in her.

Using her powers of telepathy, Yukiko develops a bond with the arashtora and eventually names it Buruu after her deceased brother.  The more time they spend together in Japan's last unchanged forest, the more they take on aspects of each other's personalities, which becomes crucial in the coming days, when Yukiko is tasked with destroying the Shōgun's despotic regime.  Can Yukiko save a nation that is so addicted to chi and mechanization that it is killing the environment? 

The moment I found out that Stormdancer was Japanese steampunk, I was in all the way.  Steampunk is easily one of my favorites in the fantasy genre, but it is quite often set in Europe.  Having a location in an alternate Japan means that all of the characters were of colour. I do have to say that I am not very familiar with Japanese culture, so any mistakes that Kristoff made certainly flew over my head. 

In an interview regarding the research Kristoff engaged in to write Stormdancer he said:
I’ve had people ask if I did a degree in Japanese studies, but the closest I’ve come is reading all six volumes of AKIRA in a week. Maybe I’d picked up a lot of detail through film and manga that I’ve consumed down through the years, but Wikipedia was really my go-to-guy. I have a friend who lives in Japan who I bounce ideas off too. I pay him with the promise of booze.
This greatly troubled me because Wikipedia is a starting place for research; it should never constitute the totality of one's research.  It's also worth noting that manga does not completely represent Japanese culture. As I said, not being overly familiar with Japanese culture myself, I am quite sure I missed a lot, especially given the source material, so please keep that in mind when choosing to read Stormdancer.

Kristoff puts a lot of effort into his descriptive world building.  Normally, taking 50 pages for characters to essentially walk down the street would irk me but I do understand why he felt it was necessary.  Those unfamiliar with Japanese culture would need this to get a strong sense of the setting and the culture involved; however, this heavy description continued throughout the whole book, which at times bored me. 

Normally, I am not a fan of Y.A. but Kristoff included things like class issues, governmental corruption and of course a degrading environment, which is a vast improvement on the typical special snowflake meets vampire or whatever and the two angst for 250 pages.  Things like the poor not recognizing their strength based in their sheer numbers, war to drive an economy, murder or self imposed banishment for those who rebel, and the depletion of resources because no one considers the future are all universal themes and Kristoff wound them expertly through his tale.  For a book supposedly about a Griffin and a teenage girl, there were a lot of mature themes in this novel.

In terms of gender, Stormdancer did of course have the typical female protagonist, but in this case I am happy to report that instead of rushing headlong into dangerous situations, Yukiko took the time to plan and think about all of her options.  Her goal was to save her father and kill the Shōgun and in that order precisely.  No matter the pressure from others, Yukiko kept her priorities.   In terms of important female characters, there is also Aisha, the Shōgun's sister.  Aisha is well aware of the sexist patriarchal world in which she lives, but is still extremely powerful and not afraid to use that which is seen as a weakness by men against them. Aisha aligns herself with the rebels not to consolidate her power but from a place of justice and pragmatism. Unlike others in the court, she is well aware that the world is extremely unbalanced and is falling apart around them.  

There is an undercurrent of romance in Stormdancer which I found irritating. It felt like this happened solely to remind the reader that Yukiko is young and inexperienced.   She would stop and say that she shouldn't be dreaming about boys because of everything that was going on but yet this continued to happen.  Also, universally, all of the young men that we were introduced to developed feelings for Yukiko. She is the only one able to speak to animals and that is more than enough for the reader to realize that she is special without the whole gasp, young men must love her routine.  It is a distraction from the plot and absolutely not needed. Of course this is typical of Y.A but it is disappointing to see in this book, which has so many unique elements. 

I had a really hard time deciding how to rate this book.  On one hand, there's Japanese steampunk, which is truly original and the other, clear over description.  It's not enough to read about a mechanized katana and say it's all good.  I think in a lot of ways, Kristoff fell just short of the mark and I suspect that had I more knowledge about Japanese culture, that my thoughts might be more critical given his source material.  I am always in favour of marginalised people as protagonists; however, for it to work, the author must make themselves intimately familiar with the culture in question.  There is also a lack of inclusion of GLBT characters and disabled characters only received a passing mention.  Stormdancer, has an interesting concept; however, I am not 100% sold on the book.

Note: A copy of this book was obtained from the publisher through Netgalley