Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Stormdancer (The Lotus War Book One) by Jay Kristoff
This book is marketed as Japanese Steam-Punk and that alone is intriguing. I have often heard people ask if there were other steam-punk novels than those centered on Great Britain and the European nations. This seems almost designed to fit that bill and for that reason it stood as part of the reason I waited before reading this. I always read the reviews along with a sampling of the beginning and I particularly pay attention to the bad reviews. Bad reviews range most generally between short and not very informative to a few sentences that leave me puzzled. This one for some reason garnered a few lengthy almost vindictive reviews and after reading those I decided to let it sit till I had a moment to read it with a more open mind. That moment came and I'm glad I waited because: although there are some rather suspect style decisions in the author's approach, there is a rather entertaining and thought provoking plot sandwiched between all the world building. I give Jay Kristoff high marks for that, but there were some puzzling things that I'd like to mention.
First of all this is not Japanese Steam-punk. At best it is Shima Imperium Steam-punk. It's an alternate reality and though(by the maps supplied) it manages to be central to what we consider Japan; it is an Imperium that seems to extend much farther than that and is the dominant Kingdom on this alternate planet. I for one do not have a problem with that setup and the anachronisms that appear throughout when trying to compare this to our world. In fact; even though I have not yet become an expert on Steam-punk, I believe one qualifier is that the story will contain some anachronisms. I will, though, make the observation that there are certain efforts by Jay Kristoff to legitimatize the Japanese setting through the use of certain words. Some of these are in the dialogue and do seem to become a bit annoying; though I found I was annoyed by different reasons than some readers. I felt like it was just a bad style choice.
What I mean by that is that the author chose to have the characters speaking English and my thought is that when that is done it might be prudent to avoid certain expressions like; it's only one word ; or it's two simple syllables. But personally that wasn't at all that annoying because the meaning comes through anyway. I'm looking more at other novels where the characters language is not English but they speak English. Usually if the author chooses to have them momentarily speak their language natively it is for entire phrases and sometimes they even append a translation. Sometimes they don't translate and I think they think it's just fun to make you look it up. Not that often have I seen single words singled out to consistently replace single common words and that's what happens here in the dialogue. The words Hai, Sama, and Aiya are placed in the dialogue almost as though they are a reminder for the writer that this characters are pseudo Japanese or worse yet that he thinks that the reader will forget that fact. For the record I got that notion in the first couple of pages and never needed any prompts to continue the illusion. I could not find any valid justification for not using the English equivalents to these words. That's just me though.
The next complaint I have is the decision to make the story drag until about 24% of the way through somewhere about 11 chapters and 78 pages the world building comes to a grinding halt and we finally see character development. Up until this point we have a very young Yukiko who acts well beyond her age but is being defined in a rather stiff manner and we only occasionally see flashbacks that explain possibly why she acts so mature. It is not until this 11th chapter that we get a closer look at her and her father and their relationship and how his drive to capture the Arashitora coupled with his strange sense of honor and loyalty to the Shogun can easily eclipse even his love and compassion for his daughter. And we see how despite her love and sense of honor and loyalty to her father she is still at best the rebellious teen who is trying to reconcile her own sense of values against those being imposed upon her while respectfully remaining a dutiful daughter. This coupled with the discovery that the Arashitora are still alive and they have an opportunity to capture it all conspire to put their relationship to task. Despite the intense action in the scene this is a highly emotionally charged scene that defines the entire book. I'm just amazed that there are a large number of people who make it this far.
From this point forward the last three quarters of the novel make this worth reading.
This is where the story began for me and when I go back I can find nothing in the previous ten chapters that are essential to driving the story. What little bit of world building that might be necessary and the back-story could have been fitted in anywhere inside what remains and there honestly is a whole lot of world building that seems to be trying to establish the Japanese connection that I found unnecessary to this story. Terms such as shakuhachi flute, yakuza, split-toed tabi socks, kimonos and an infinite array of others that seem mostly to be trying to create validation for a setting that is, at best, a caricature to that setting. The incessant nonstop world building in this case might be the reason some people have such fierce objection to the misuse of a few words. For me it was fortunate that I ignored the glossary at the end and mentally inserted my own best guess to the English word that should have been there: and moved on.
One of the strongest things I judge a novel on is whether it entertains me and this book did despite how long it took to get there. I do think it could have been better if the author could have stepped back and realized that he needed to create the alternate world he was writing about; as opposed to the flimsy caricature of a world he ended up with. Good world building is when the author builds a world that is consistent within itself and I think that this is that. I also think it's more difficult to see this because of having to look around the extra hand-waving with pseudo historic references that seem mostly unnecessary to driving the plot forward.
I would recommend this to SFF fans and lovers of Steam-punk with the caveat that the reader should not expect historic and cultural accuracy. And I give it high marks but could have given it the top rating if there had been some balance in the world building.
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