Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff – Review
|Genre(s):||Fantasy, Steam Punk|
|Release Date:||September 2012|
Being a Martial Artist, when I saw the cover of Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff my jaw dropped. Then, flipping the book over, I saw the following testimonial from Patrick Rothfuss and was completely sold on it:
‘What’s this? A Japanese Steampunk novel with mythical creatures and a strong female protagonist? Yeah, I’m all over that. Though honestly, you had me at “Japanese Steampunk.”’
So, yes, Stormdancer is set within a World that’s very much based on the culture and traditions of feudal Japan. The majority of the characters we follow belong to ‘The Lotus Guild’ and are split into four different clans: Fox, Dragon, Phoenix or Tiger. The bad news is that ‘The Lotus Guild’ is ruled by an extremely violent and brutal ruler: The Shogun. For years he has kept his place and grown rich from the reaping Lotus from the island-like Shima and managing its transition into what Jay Kristoff calls: ‘clockwork industrialisation’.
Much like how we see drawings of a smoggy, dirty Victorian London, Kristoff presents to us a bleak vision of industrialisation. The skies are red with fumes and those living within close proximity to the machines need to wear protection to stop breathing in the poison. More worrying for those of the Lotus Guild, who remember and respect their heritage, is that many of the legendary animals that were said to be sent by divine forces have disappeared from the World altogether.
I guess the reason this is so interesting is that we’ve tended to see Steampunk novels set within Victorian-England and even traditional fantasy has tended to avoid Japan. If I say ‘Steampunk’ to you guys, you are likely to see someone in googles and a long travel cloak wondering the grey streets of London. It seems this kind of setting has become home for the Steampunk novelist, just as Arthurian landscapes have become home for traditional fantasy writers.
When you think about it, though, feudal Japan seems a good setting for a fantasy novel, right? All those dragons, spirits, belief in the Earth’s energy and we haven’t even mentioned the Martial Arts yet (don’t worry – it’s coming). But, until now, no one’s really given it a shot.
Back to Jay’s efforts and now that you are now caught up with the setting – let me introduce to you the characters:
First up we have our protagonist, Yukiko. Yukiko is an incredibly attractive (although she doesn’t realise it, of course) young woman who has studied Martial Arts all her life. In fact, when we first meet her we see her going hand to hand (or blade to club and claw) against a trio of evil demons. What I liked about Yukiko is that she is a strong female who doesn’t lack emotions. So many books suffer with the fact that women are presented as either: A) a damsel in distress or B) A Warrior woman (who is basically a man with boobs, right?). Jay does a great job of presenting to us readers a kickass female who, although physically strong, is emotionally susceptible.
Her father is none-other than the black-fox. Oh, you don’t know the black-fox? Well, let me tell you about him: he’s the Shogun’s Master Hunter. For years he has worked for the Shogun (and others besides) tracking down mythical beasts and sending them to their graves. In fact, he himself has been responsible for sending a number of the beasts into extinction.
The problem is, if you’re a beast hunter that has killed pretty much every beast worth killing, what do you do? Well, it seems you become an addict. That’s right; the famed black-fox has fallen to the temptations of the lotus plant. Although the effects are not gone into in great detail, blood lotus is smoked through a bone pipe and numbs a person’s emotions. No longer do they worry or care about the world or things around, which, for a man with a young daughter, is never going to be a good thing.
Of course, Yukiko recognises that her father is in trouble. She sees him slipping away and falling into his depression and suppression-by-drugs cycle. Therefore, when a job comes in she is all ears and ready to convince her father to ditch the suppressants and join her in a hunt. When they find out that the creature the Shogun wants them to hunt is believed to have been extinct for over 100 years, the characters have a bit of a problem. Find the non-existent thunder-tiger (half-eagle, half-tiger) and they’ll be rewarded handsomely, fail and their only payment will be death.
So, I come to my first gripe! This is about 30-40 pages worth of the novel relayed to you now and I think you are all set up and ready to go. However, the copy on the back of the UK edition takes you up to about page 150, maybe even further than that. Now, for a book that is 450 pages, to give away over a third of the book on the back cover is a bit of a risky move. The book essentially reveals to you that the characters do find the thunder-tiger and that Yukiko can communicate with the thunder-tiger, which is something that is seen as unholy by the Lotus Guild.
I can honestly tell you that I believe I’d have enjoyed the book FAR more should this have been hidden. Essentially, the first 150 pages you already know what is going to happen and so you do lose a great deal of the excitement and anticipation, which I believe the publishers and editors and beta-readers would have had without the copy.
Ignoring this for the moment, Jay’s story telling is fantastic. Jay does a great job of moving the story forwards and keeping readers flipping through the pages with his logical path of progression and expansion. What begins as a simple hunting mission quickly develops into a believable ‘one woman against the world’ kind of story. In this respect you would say that it is your classic Martial Art’s adventure. I could mention a few Bruce Lee films, but a better comparison would be something like Kill Bill – where that single wronged individual works their way through friends or foes (sometimes a mixture of both), kicking ass along the way, all with the aim of exacting revenge on the man who wronged her.
The advantage Stormdancer has over Kill Bill is that Jay Kristoff is able to do what the Hell he likes along this journey. The fantasy landscape allows him to present to us Robocop-like Samurais, ferocious demons, mind-blowingly cool battles, airships and so much more besides.
And yet, behind all the action, there are some beautiful and thought provoking elements to this story. Yukiko’s mother was killed when she was very young and the fact her father is an addict means that there is no-one there for her.
Much time is spent exploring this relationship and despite the black-fox being an addict, it is difficult to hate him – because he truly has been through a lot. A lot of the reader’s energy will go into wishing Yukiko well in her side-mission to help her father off the drug. There are also a number of love-interests for Yukiko and, although they are not the focus of the book, the reader can get caught up in choosing who they think (if any) she should choose.
One issue that I did have with Jay’s writing was that early on in the book he has a tenancy to repeat description and focalise externally. What I mean by this is that rather than enter a characters head and see through their eyes we are kind of hovering above them and being told what they see, hear and feel as opposed to experiencing it. What this does is draw you away from the characters and out of the experience. That being said, I am not sure whether this is a flaw with Jay’s writing or a necessity in this kind of new and previously unexplored setting. In traditional fantasy books you just presume you are in a world very much like Medieval England, so an author can jump right in behind a characters eyes. Jay did not have that luxury. Rather, he had to explain literally everything and perhaps he and his editors were concerned that some elements of his story would need greater explanation (which is a good point).
Other than that minor issue early on, I found Jay’s writing to be most beautiful and at times even poetic. The combination of a unique setting, a complex female protagonist and continually exciting action-scenes will ensure readers pick up book 2 when it is released late next year. One final thing I would like to say and compliment Jay on is that: this is the kind of book that a child, teenager or adult could pick up and enjoy because there are so many ‘optional’ layers to the story. To expand upon this point: how much you get out of this book will depend upon how deep you dig and how long you spend reflecting on what Jay relates to you. There are a couple of characters you read about and can forget, for example the black-foxes love interest. But, if you take the time to think about the complexities of that relationship (both in terms of the black-fox and Yukiko) your mind begins to wonder.
Bottomline: Jay Kristoff offers readers a World that feels truly fresh and exciting; no mean feat in modern fantasy literature. Characters are so vivid and so realistically complex that you’ll find yourself questioning whether this is fiction or accounted history. Whether you want an action-packed quick read or thought-provoking story – you’ll love Stormdancer. Bring on the sequel!