Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

Stormdancer coverA review by Nalini Haynes

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff is being marketed as both YA and adult fantasy in the USA.

Stormdancer‘s blurb provided by the publisher:

Griffins are supposed to be extinct. So when Yukiko and her warrior father Masaru are sent to capture one for the Shogun, they fear that their lives are over. Everyone knows what happens to those who fail him, no matter how hopeless the task.

But the mission proves far less impossible, and far more deadly, than anyone expects – and soon Yukiko finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in her country’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled griffin for company. But trapped together in the forest, Yukiko and Buruu soon discover a friendship that neither of them expected.

Meanwhile, the country around them verges on the brink of collapse. A toxic fuel is slowly choking the land; the omnipotent, machine-powered Lotus Guild is publicly burning those they deem Impure; and the Shogun cares about nothing but his own dominion. Yukiko has always been uneasy in the shadow of power, when she learns the awful truth of what the Shogun has done, both to her country and to her own family she’s determined to do something about it.

Returning to the city, Yukiko and Buruu plan to make the Shogun pay for his crimes – but what can one girl and a flightless griffin do against the might of an empire?

Stormdancer is one of those books that grew on me: the further I read, the more engaging it became.  I found the first section of the book difficult to read as there were so many unfamiliar Japanese words.  Having been raised in my formative years by a Nippon-phile then done a few years of Judo training myself, I was surprised by the number of words and concepts that were completely new to me in a book written by a white guy.  I would have liked the glossary to be in the front so I could refer to it, but I didn’t realise it was there until the end.

Once the hunters were flying on the dirigible, the language settled down and the story became more engaging.  The reader learns about Yukiko and her relationship with her father through flashbacks told from Yukiko’s point of view: these flashbacks develop both characters into solid, believable, sympathetic characters without resorting to the ‘muggle’ generational divide that is a time-worn trope.  Yukiko’s attitude to other members of the party at first appears insolent and unjustified but is later explored; probably the main concern here is the absence of Japanese culture in terms of pressure to prioritise the needs of family and the community over the individual.  It’s nuances like this that remind me that Stormdancer was written by a white guy.  At the same time, these nuances make Stormdancer much more accessible to Western readers than a lot of Japanese pop culture.

Most of Stormdancer is told from the point of view of Yukiko although not in first person.  To me this is effective as Yukiko’s world view is simplistic.  Together Yukiko and the reader learn more about society and politics in this alternate world.  Where I think Kristoff has erred is in his occasional switches of point of view that aren’t threaded evenly throughout the story.

The opening scene is styled like a teaser for a TV show, showing an action scene that gives away major plot points for the novel.  If you don’t like spoilers, skip chapter one; it’s very short and spoilery.  It’s also very rare for me to suggest skipping a portion of a novel, so take note!

The next chapter opens with Masaru getting stoned by smoking blood lotus in a gambling den.  After the scene is established, Yukiko enters.  It’s not clear whether she saves the day or screws up monumentally; it would have been good to follow up on that point, but the characters let it go and focus on the terrible news: they’ve been instructed to hunt a thunder tiger and if they’re unsuccessful, they’ll be expected to commit seppuku (ritual and excruciatingly painful suicide to save face).

Later there’s another sudden shift of point of view showing teenage boys perving on girls in a bath house; this seems to be gratuitous because their discovery – Yukiko’s rising sun irezumi (cultural tattoo indicating familial service to the Shogun) – could easily have been discovered another way – for example, it could have been noticed by the girl who accompanied Yukiko into the bathhouse.  There were a very few other shifts of point of view.  In my opinion a choice needed to be made and adhered to rigidly:  either weave varying points of view evenly throughout the story or stick to one point of view rigidly.

There are a couple of cultural errors that most Westerners probably won’t pick up on: shoes aren’t taken off before entering a room, shoes and slippers/socks are switched upon entering or leaving a house.  Entries to Japanese dwellings accommodate this cultural necessity.  Likewise, you don’t walk around outside in socks without shoes.  Similarly, Japanese bathing is very ritualised as is necessary when you’re sharing bathwater with numerous other people in communal baths.  They scrub themselves thoroughly with abrasive wash cloths and sluice off the grime and residue by tossing buckets of water over themselves before entering the baths.  There is no way that Yukiko would have soaked in a Japanese bath and watched her filth rise to the surface.  These were minor points, not huge errors.

Some of the prose was richly descriptive while some was kludgy and needed work.  Sometimes I wasn’t really sure what was intended: did the emperor’s sister have khol around the eyes of her goggles or around her own eyes, visible through her goggles?  If she’s wearing goggles, why the hell doesn’t she wear a breather all the time as other people wear indoor breathers because the atmosphere is so lethal?  Her breather is kept in the sleeve of her kimono, but every kimono I’ve worn has the sleeves almost sewn up, only allowing room for hands to pass through.  Unless the breather is just a closed fan instead of a breather styled to look like a fan, I don’t understand how she can keep it in her sleeve and draw it out so easily and repeatedly. It seemed to me that Kristoff had a thing for Amidala-style lipstick and wanted the reader to see it in every scene with this character.  At other times I loved the descriptions of the scenery and events.

Recently I’ve heard criticism that science fiction is no longer re-inventing itself, providing readers with anything new.  My response to that is that we know where the planet is headed: into catastrophic climate change caused by heavy industrialisation and greed.  How many climate change SF novels are going to sell?  A limited number.  What we need are novels like  Stormdancer, which is an example of the ‘new’ brand of SF; Stormdancer is escapist fantasy that reminds us of the consequences of greed and exploitation while giving hope.  If we’re focused too much on the doom-and-gloom, it all seems so hopeless – what can I do? – but if we have hope for a future, then every little bit I do – turning off unnecessary lights, walking instead of taking the car – makes the present less bad, leading to a future more easily redirected towards positive change.

On the topic of science fiction: Stormdancer appears to be heavily influenced by Dune and Naausica.  Dune because a cultural saying was ‘the lotus must bloom’, alongside certain cultural resonances such as a guild set apart in lotus use with certain similarities to the Bene Gesserits and the space pilots.  Naausica because it seemed that the ecological devastation and, potentially, the future recovery of Earth would have similarities in world-view and in execution.

I enjoyed Stormdancer with its character development, particularly the father/daughter relationship, its ecological challenges and its griffin.   I haven’t said much about the griffin because I don’t want to spoil the story, but when I review part two of this trilogy, I’ll wax eloquent on the subject.

Four stars.