Enter into Neth Space and you will find thoughts and reviews of books and other media that fit the general definition of speculative fiction. This includes the various genres and sub-genres of fantasy, science fiction, epic fantasy, high fantasy, hard sci-fi, soft sci-fi, new weird, magical realism, cyberpunk, urban fantasy, slipstream, horror, alternative history, SF noir, etc. Thoughts are my own, I'm certainly not a professional, just an avid reader avoiding his day job.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Review: Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff
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
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.
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.
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 harshcriticism 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.
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