Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Review: Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

 “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.”
#1 New York Times best Selling author

The quote above adorns the cover for Stormdancer, the debut from Jay Kristoff and book one of The Lotus War trilogy (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). Rothfuss’ blub above is what initially grabbed my attention for this book, months before its publication and months prior to my receiving an early copy. I’ll be honest – it got me excited. It sounded cool and while I know people have mixed opinions on Rothfuss’ books, I can say that I really enjoy his story telling ability and find him to be a genuinely entertaining person – just the sort of person who could get me excited about a book through a short blurb.
And so I fell into the trap. You see, if you asked me I’d tell you that blurbs don’t mean much to me. That they often can’t be trusted and you really need to carefully parse the words to make sure you’re not being bamboozled. So, let’s do that with Rothfuss’ blurb. To me, it looks like he’s commenting on a summary of the book, and not really the book itself – in fact, a careful read of the blurb makes me think that he had not read the book prior to giving it. And this is the best part – he flat out admits it all – saying that the term Japanese Steampunk is the only thing he was really interested in hearing.
So, I’m lead to the conclusion that this big and enticing blurb by Rothfuss is actually quite meaningless and not representative of the book itself since he hadn’t even read it. And since I’ve already admitted that it was this blurb that piqued my interest in Stormdancer, I must admit to blurb bamboozlement – and that is an embarrassing admission for me, a ‘respected’ review blogger of 6+ years. But, let’s not dwell on that and get to some discussion of the book – because I did actually read it and what I have to say about it is a bit more than a blurb.
In brief, the Japanese Steampunk angle has already been covered by Rothfuss. And yes there is civil unrest, at least one mythical beast (a griffin), and a strong female protagonist (at least surficially). I’ll go ahead and add that the society is completely dependent on the refined product of lotus flowers, which has lead to a sort of industrial wasteland full of pollution and drug addicts with an endless war distantly persecuted and dwindling natural places and creatures all under tyrannical rule.
The plot of Stormdancer follows a standardized checklist for epic fantasy – it’s an autocratic political system with overly cruel leadership, there is a mysterious resistance movement, a young teenager is the hero (Yukiko), one parent is dead, there are issues with her father to be overcome, Yukiko has magical abilities, impossibly a mythical creature appears, Yukiko promptly develops a magical bond to said creature, and then Yukiko sets out to topple the government. Anyone who is well read in epic fantasy will easily know the outcome of this book – right down to who dies and who lives. Now, this isn’t necessarily a big flaw – someone who has not read a lot of epic fantasy may think that this is a wonderfully unique book, though to me, the plotting was tiresome at best.
On to the writing – as we all know a really well told story from a great storyteller can make it easy to overlook a lot of flaws. Kristoff comes off rather mixed here – at times his writing is really good, surprising good for a debut author and showing lots of potential. However, there are some pretty bad pacing issues – particularly with the beginning third of the novel which essentially serves as poorly presented infodump that lays out all the details of the rather cool world he’s created. However, there is no subtlety and no nuance. And while I really enjoy the world that Kristoff has created, he lost a fair be of credibility by bludgeoning the reader continually with the horror and injustice of the environmental and human tragedy at hand.
And all this adds up to an overall criticism of the book that I hate to make – it’s too YA – in all the bad ways it can be. To further explain, YA books can be very powerful and rather more complex than many people give them credit for. And the best of them often cross over with great success beyond the traditional YA market. Stormdancer doesn’t do this – the lack of subtlety, the lack of nuance, the strait-forward plotting – it has been done over and over again and only reinforces the common criticisms YA books get from more mature audiences. This isn’t to say that Stormdancer won’t work out well for the traditional YA audience, only that I don’t see it moving far past it.
The Japanese-inspired setting is probably thing that got me most excited initially. I am really enjoying the trend of late for (epic) fantasies to be set in worlds that are not inspired by medieval Britain (or Europe at all). And though curious, I’m rather under-read in when comes to Japan-inspired settings. So, I rather enjoyed this aspect of Stormdancer. However, I have seen some pretty harsh criticism of the Japanese-like culture and language that Kristoff creates. And having read those criticisms, I’m much less excited about the Japan-like world than I initially was. So, read them if you’d like to see some analysis of where Kristoff (mostly) gets it all wrong.
Likewise I have some issues with Yukiko, the strong female protagonist. The truth is that I generally find her annoying – perhaps it’s due to an (accurate?) portrayal of teen angst (I mean what teenager isn’t annoying when it comes down to it). And it certainly doesn’t help that the bonding/taming of the griffin was done so unconvincingly. But mostly, I think it’s because Yukiko as a character is completely framed from a male point of view (even though it’s supposed to be her story). It’s all about her falling in love with this guy, her relationship to her father, her hatred of the (male) Shogun, her bonding with the (male) griffin, etc. After thinking on the book for a while, I think this maybe one of the biggest flaws and could be the underlying explanation for why it just never comes together as it should, in spite of some rather fun storytelling that occurs along the way. Even though I’m not a huge fan how she frames her arguments, I’d be pretty curious to see what Requires Only Hate would say about this book – evisceration comes to mind.
So, this has turned out to be a pretty negative review, beginning with the admission of being hoodwinked by a well-written (from a certain point of view) blurb. But, that’s not the full story. A truth is that baring some of the big pacing issues that occur mostly in the first third of the book, the storytelling was strong enough to keep me interested. It’s not a book that I ever considered not finishing. However, I doubt I’ll be reading the sequels either. It was after reflecting on my thoughts of the book for a while (which I do with pretty much every book I read) that I realized that I had some real issues with it. I think that most fans of epic fantasy probably will too – and that means most of the people who read this blog regularly. But, for someone who is new to epic fantasy, particularly someone who is a teenager, this book will probably work very well and I expect that they would enjoy it a lot. So, while in the end I would say this isn’t the book for me or most of the blogger tribe I run with, it probably is a book for a lot of people browsing the YA section at a bookstore (or equivalent).


Paul Weimer said...

I almost feel ashamed now for liking the book, although I did not find it flawless in the least.

Grack21 said...

Ha. Ever _I_ am interested to see ROH take on this, and I, uh, am not overly fond of her ....existence.

Anonymous said...

As much as most of the reviews I'm hearing about this book now seem to be on the negative side, I'm still interested in reading it. I admit to a weakness for things involving Japanese culture, and so that's made me curious to at least give Stormdancer a try. It seems more and more like it'll be a struggle to read through, but my curiosity is still nagging at me to give it a go.

I definitely appreciate your review, though. Gives me a more balanced look at the whole thing.

Anonymous said...

Still, I prefer this to the shit pumped out by brandon sanderson and terry brooks that you seem to praise so much.

Neth said...


to each their own, though it's hard to give any credit to an anonymous comment, particularly when they can't get their facts strait (I've never read, much less praised, a Terry Brooks book)


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