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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Order the Book HERE
Read the first four chapters HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Jay Kristoff was born and brought up in Perth. He grew up reading and collecting books and spent most of his free time playing Dungeons & Dragons. He graduated with an Arts degree and then spent ten years in the field of “creative advertizing” for which he won a few awards as well. He currently lives in Melbourne with his wife and dog. This is his debut.

OFFICIAL BLURB: A DYING LAND - The Shima Imperium verges on the brink of environmental collapse; an island nation once rich in tradition and myth, now decimated by clockwork industrialization and the machine-worshipers of the Lotus Guild. The skies are red as blood, the land is choked with toxic pollution, and the great spirit animals that once roamed its wilds have departed forever.

AN IMPOSSIBLE QUEST - The hunters of Shima's imperial court are charged by their Shogun to capture a thunder tiger - a legendary creature, half-eagle, half-tiger. But any fool knows the beasts have been extinct for more than a century, and the price of failing the Shogun is death.

A HIDDEN GIFT - Yukiko is a child of the Fox clan, possessed of a talent that if discovered, would see her executed by the Lotus Guild. Accompanying her father on the Shogun's hunt, she finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in Shima's last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled thunder tiger for company. Even though she can hear his thoughts, even though she saved his life, all she knows for certain is he'd rather see her dead than help her. 

But together, the pair will form an indomitable friendship, and rise to challenge the might of an empire.

FORMAT/INFO: Stormdancer is 336 pages long divided over thirty four numbered and titled chapters and a epilogue. Narration is in the third-person via Yukiko, Masaru, Kasumi, Akihito, Yoritomo-no-miya, Buruu and Sumiko. There is also a map of the Shima Isles as well as Kigen city along with a glossary of the terms used in the book. Stormdancer is the first volume in the Lotus War series and the US cover art is done by Jason Chan.

September 18, 2012 marks the US hardback and e-book publication of Stormdancer by Thomas Dunne books. Stormdancer will also be published in the UK in hardback and e-book form by Tor UK on September 13, 2012.

ANALYSIS: There are some books that slowly start gaining momentum from the time they are announced. I have seen such buzz with the release of Scott Lynch's and Patrick Rothfuss’ debut books. The online world was abuzz with the ravings of bloggers and people who had managed to get their hands on it. A similar case was to be found here as well, since last year when Jay’s book was announced. Many were intrigued with the book information floating around. I believe this blurb by Patrick Rothfuss best encapsulates my feelings: “What’s that? You say you’ve got a Japanese Steampunk novel with mythic creatures, civil unrest, and a strong female protagonist? I’m afraid I missed everything you said after Japanese Steampunk. That’s all I really needed to hear.”

I believe along with me, most of the readers will be also be sucked in by the Japanese Steampunk angle. I was also eager to see the story, about a girl and the griffin she encounters in addition to the steampunk world version of Nippon. Let me get one thing out of the way before I begin this review, Jay Kristoff has created a FANTASTIC world. Beginning from the first page, the author immerses the reader into an exotic but alluring world wherein Oni (demons) exist side by side with a Japanese nation wherein machinery and equipment powered by the blood lotus plant have made it technologically superior but also ecologically unstable. The world showcased within is sumptuous to say the least, be it with small things such as chainsaw katanas or the mechanized samurai armors or the flying ships. The author creates a world which seems unique to read about and yet familiar at the same time. This world  is one to be savored and I hope the author explores more of its nooks and corners while illuminating more of  its back history and customs.

Now that I gotten that bit out of the way, I can talk about the rest of the book. The author also quickly introduces all the main characters beginning from the first chapter when the reader is introduced to the story’s protagonist, Yukiko as she is battling two Oni (demons) for her survival. The second chapter is then focused on Yoritomo-No-Miya, who serves the Shima Isles as its Seii Taishogun and he rules it as whimsically and cruelly to remind most fantasy readers of another boy-king from the world of Westeros. It’s his dream that basically propels the actions of most characters, as is his wish for the chief hunt master Masaru to capture and bring him a Thunder-tiger or Arashitora (Griffin) that has been recently spotted. These creatures have been deemed mythological and should one be captured, it would acquire the emperor the esteemed title/status of Stormdancer.

His greed sets Yukiko, her father Masaru and his comrades Akhito and Kasumi on a path of great tribulation and misery as they are forced to follow their Shogun’s orders without even knowing if the sighting was true or not. This journey will force them to face their past, a crucial Achilles heel about their nation's progress as well as many other truths. But before all that, they will have to capture something that is mythical and also known to be quite deadly. The story then just shoots from this premise and barrels the readers into a world that is unknown but its social and ecological problems seem to be very similar to of our own.

What can I say, I was completely bowled over by this exotic debut, mixing steampunk with a culture that has been hardly mined for such speculative fictional purposes. Jay Kristoff's world is so lushly described, from the Shogun’s iron samurai with their chainsaw katanas, to the sprawling capital city of Kigen, featuring mechanized rickshaws and respirator masks worn by most of the populace. The descriptions about the Shima isles and its people are done very well so the reader won’t feel confused by them. Then the author moves onto his next trick about the world slowly regressing into ecological oblivion due to the pollution caused by blood lotus, that is used to fuel all its technological advances. The author also describes this dystopian descent quite vividly thereby alerting the readers to the problems and quandaries faced by the main characters.

The main storyline is focused around Yukiko and the Arashitora whom she bequeaths the title of “Buruu” with the main plot being about how she locates Buruu and what happens next. This storyline is one that is fast paced and engaging and should have the readers flipping pages easily. Secondly the characterization done by author is another plus point. Beginning from Yukiko, to Masaru to Yoritomo to Buruu and many others, the author makes them out to be rather well developed people with their own back-stories. This helps the reader to get further invested in their struggles as they fight for what they believe to be right. All these factors made this debut a great book to read and I believe this book will have many many fans buzzing for the same.

Now with case of all lauded debuts there are often a few points that leave readers unsatisfied. In the case of Stormdancer, I found a couple reasons to counter its many positives. The thing that didn’t quite gel with all the awesomeness of the book is the predictability of the main story thread especially what happens when Yukiko and Buruu finally meet and the difficulties that follow? Let me clarify by what I mean, the predictability comes in the form of the trope utilized by the author namely the young protagonist finding his/her own destiny by bonding with the magical creature.

 For most fantasy readers, there’ s nothing new to be found here in regards to how it all goes down but the author still manages to make the climax interesting by inserting an odd twist here and there. This track is also somewhat reinforced by the author as he explores Yukiko’s past and the main reason for her bonding so well with the Arashitora. During this we also get to see what problems beseech the Shima Isles and also who all are behind them. The ending while twisted, felt a wee bit incomplete as the reader is left hanging wanting to know more about what happens next and what happened to several characters in the action-packed finale. Both these points detract a bit from the overall awesomeness of this debut but not too much to sour it entirely.

CONCLUSION: Jay Kristoff is to be lauded for his sheer world-building audacity and for giving the readers a fresh new world to dwell into. Amalgamating steampunk with Japanese mythology and culture gives us a story that is thoroughly exciting and admirable. Often in the books this phrase is repeated “The Lotus must bloom”, I believe such is the talent of Mr. Kristoff that the Lotus will not only bloom but it will spread rampantly across the minds of readers.


Jamie Gibbs said...

I've almost finished Stormdancer, but I'm really enjoying it. He's put a fresh twist on the steampunk genre and it works so well. I can't wait for the rest of the Lotus War books!

Jamie @ Mithril Wisdom

The Reader said...

@ Jamie

The Japanese steampunk angle of the story is its best feature and the part which I liked the most.

I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel books as well.


Traci Loudin said...

Now I definitely must read it. Patrick Rothfuss was right; from the moment I first heard of it, I was intrigued. But your review definitely cinched it! Sounds like it's going to be clever and unique.

The Reader said...

H Traci

It definitely is clever, can't say entirely unique but unique-ish based on the world-building skills displayed :)


John said...

I was excited when i first heard about this book,then,i read this -

"How much research did you have to do with regards to authenticity?

Less than people seem to think. It’s kinda odd – 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."

I'm sorry,if you are gonna set a book in a culture not familiar to you,then do some basic research first...Wikipedia..sheesh,no thanks but i will pass.

The Reader said...

Hi John

That's a valid point you bring up, but here's what I think. The author has written a fantasy book with Japanese mythology, not actual Japanese history.

I don't have expert-level knowledge of Japanese culture and language but this book seems to be an easy read with some fantastic world-building. I would recommend giving the book a try and then making up your mind in regards to how good/bad it is.

If you do decide to read it, I would like to hear how you found it.


John said...

Thanks for replying Mihir.

Yes,you are correct that it's about mythology and not history,but my criticism still holds,even if it is Japanese mythology one would expect an author to do some basic academic reading on it instead of relying on Wikipedia,i don't mean to be harsh,but this seems a little lazy on part of the author.

I read a detailed review of this book on another blog and was astounded to learn that the author had slipped in a Hindu mythological creature, "Nagaraja",which i'm sure you must have found ironic as the book is supposed to be based on Japanese mythology -

Maybe the author thinks all Asian cultures are the same..sigh..


The Reader said...

Thank you for your excellent & polite reply. Yes the author's usage of wikipedia for his authenticity has angered a lot of readers and I do agree with some of the points brought up in that review in regards to Japanese language.

I found the "Nagaraja" bit to be funny as yes it is from Indian mythology. It was used a couple of times to denote the snake goddess who was slain (I can't recall whether it was a goddess or a huge snake creature). Not that big a deal if you ask me but then it depends on the perspective.

There are some issues with this book in regards to accurateness in the dialogue as pointed out in the review you posted and I hope we can get some clarification from the author in the near future.

Honestly as a reader I liked the story and the world its set in. Though I very well understand who and why it has raised the hackles for some readers. I think the author wasn't intentionally doing it and so on one level he has failed in his research. On just a fantasy storytelling front, he has managed to belt out a fun story.

I hope I haven't offended anyone with my review as I truly liked the story. My thanks for bringing this point up for discussion John.


John said...


"I hope I haven't offended anyone with my review as I truly liked the story"

no,not at all,i quite like your and Liviu's reviews and am a regular reader of your blog,keep up the good work.

If you are interested in some good Japanese fantasy,then,may i recommend the following -

"Dragon Sword and Wind Child" and it's sequel "Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince" by Noriko Ogiwara.

"Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit" and it's sequel "Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness" by Nahoko Uehashi.


The Reader said...

Thank you John and for your recommendations as well. I'll try to track them down and get a copy.


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