Steampunk Spotlight – Japanese Edition: Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff
In his debut novel, author Jay Kristoff creates a rich fantasy steampunk setting based upon Japanese feudal culture, complete with griffins, samurai warriors, demons, airships, an evil mechanized religious order, and a ruthless dictator. Really, I think that list should be enough to get you interested in reading Stormdancer (Amazon, B&N), but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
To date, steampunk has largely been confined to Victorian England settings, with the occasional foray into the wild west. Even the anime and manga steampunk tales have tended to lean on these more traditional interpretations of the genre. Kristoff boldly takes the genre in a new direction, infusing it with new vigor.
The central character in Stormdancer is Yukiko, daughter of the Shogun’s master hunter, Masaru. They are members of one of the four prominent clans, theirs based around Kitsune, the fox, the trickster god in their religious pantheon. When the Shogun hears rumors of a surviving “thunder tiger” (or arashitora, this culture’s name for a griffin), he has a prophetic dream that he will become a stormdancer, riding the great beast into battle and vanquishing all of his enemies. But first, he needs to get his hands on one, so he orders Masaru (along with his team, including Yukiko) off to capture it. Needless to say, things do not go entirely as expected (otherwise it would be a very boring book).
I certainly don’t want to spoil anything major about the book’s plot beyond that, but I will say that the world Kristoff has created feels very tangible as you read this book. This is a world that you truly believe people live in. The social structure is complex, but comprehensible, and is explained well for readers who may not know much about real-world Japanese feudal society. Plot and social elements are gradually revealed in a particularly adept way, with hints given well before the full explanation makes its way onto the written page. You feel as if you’re walking through a real world, watching real people respond to that world.
The plot is great, but at times the writing does get overly-descriptive for my personal taste. I frequently found myself speed-reading or skimming through large descriptive passages until I reached the next major scene of action or dialogue. This is probably my biggest complaint about the book; however, the fact that the book is strong on both plot and descriptive prose might be an enticement for some who are more into that writing style than I am. The emphasis on description-heavy writing is fairly common in steampunk literature as a whole, driven as it often is by a certain aesthetic flair, so it’s not clear if this is part of Kristoff’s personal style or a conceit to the style of the genre. As I’ve said about several other of the steampunk books I’ve reviewed, I’d love to see a film or comic book of this really bring the imagery to life.
Back to the unabashedly positive praise of this book: one of the strongest compliments I can make is that the finale was extremely compelling and unpredictable. About 20 pages from the end, I had to stop reading to run some errands, and it was an agonizing time. I couldn’t tell what was about to be resolved, which things were going to be left dangling for sequels, who was going to live, die, or betray, or any of a dozen other things that were about to happen, including at least one fairly major plot twist in the final pages that came completely out of left field (but did make perfect sense). I ended up abandoning my wife to taking care of the kids’ bath time on her own so that I could find out how it ended. (Thanks, honey!)
In short, this is an incredibly ambitious and successful debut novel, creating a world and series that I will eagerly follow. If it has flaws, it’s that the writing is a bit overly-descriptive and there could be some more work on the characterization of secondary characters and antagonists, but the primary protagonists are all very well done. The plot is particularly strong, resulting in an unpredictable betrayal-laden climax that really drew me in.
So if you’re looking for something genuinely new in the realm of fantasy, I strongly recommend Stormdancer (Amazon, B&N). Once you’ve read it, let us know if it lived up to your expectations … or where it fell short.
Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reader copy of this book for review purposes.
Andrew Zimmerman Jones is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He has been a finalist in the Writers of the Future contest and received Honorable Mention in the 2011 Writer’s Digest Science Fiction/Fantasy Competition. In addition to being a contributing editor to Black Gate magazine, Andrew is the About.com Physics Guide and author of String Theory For Dummies. You can follow his exploits on Facebook, Twitter, and even Google+.
I’m curious yet somewhat reluctant to read this book. Seems like some people have given it rave reviews, while others are steaming over the lack of research… For example, I heard that characters were using Chinese exclamations (eg “aiya!”) and that the author got the simple Japanese honorifics mixed up, which seems a bit slack on his part. Did you notice any of this?
Thanks for the great review Andrew.
First, this cover absolutely caught my eye, and I love it! Ever since reading the cover text I’ve been intrigued by it, just haven’t brought myself to purchase it due to the stunningly overwhelming amount of titles in both my print and e- TBR shelves.
Second, I’ve never been drawn to the steampunk genre — until this title. And your words describing it are encouraging. Odds are very good you’ve clinched my interest.
Restiva – I didn’t notice any problems like this, but I’m also not an expert on Japanese (or Chinese) culture. This is not a steampunk alternate history, but rather a fictional land that’s based on Japanese culture, so this gives a lot of leeway to change things about that culture as needed to fit the needs of the narrative. My guess is that people who are really into Japanese culture would find a number of issues and be bothered by them, just like people who know a lot about medieval European culture are irked when they see bales of hay in a traditional fantasy world (which is something that I can easily overlook).
[…] Stormdancer, Jay Kristoff ($24.99) […]