Curiously nerdy posts.
I’m really going to have to step up the pace if I want to meet my Goodreads goal of 24 books in 2015, huh? I’ll get there.
Every once in a while, it’s fun to just pick up a book that sounds fun, even if it sounds a tad bit crazy from the start. I’ve had good luck with that lately. I really enjoyed Six Gun Tarot when I bought it on a whim, for instance, and that was a heady mix of western, horror, and fantasy rolled together. So when I came across Stormdancer in the bookstore, and discovered that it was a steampunk novel set in feudal Japan, I kind of had to read it. I’ve always wanted to like steampunk more than I actually do, but I’ve always enjoyed feudal Japan stuff, from classic Kurosawa films to Mushashi Miyamoto’s Book of Five Rings. So I figured that might help a bit.
And you know? It really did.
The blurb reads like this:
The Shima Imperium verges on the brink of environmental collapse; an island nation once rich in tradition and myth, now decimated by clockwork industrialization and the machine-worshipers of the Lotus Guild. When hunters of Shima’s imperial court are charged by their Shogun to capture a legendary griffin, they fear their lives are over. Any fool knows the beasts have been extinct for more than a century, and the price of failing the Shogun is death. Accompanying her father on the Shogun’s hunt, the girl Yukiko finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in Shima’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled griffin for company. Even though she can hear his thoughts, even though she saved his life, all she knows for certain is he’d rather see her dead than help her. But together, the pair will form an indomitable friendship, and rise to challenge the might of an empire.
Minus the death part, it kind of reminds me of a Disney movie. But more on that later.
The world building. The setting is, as you might imagine, by far the biggest strength the novel has. Jay Kristoff did a superb job creating a facsimile Japan that somehow is both an homage to the country we know for its anime, katanas, and video games, while acknowledging its fairly dark past during times of war.
I mean, to be honest, this is a rockstar level idea for a novel. I loved the giant steam powered samurai with chainsaw katanas (yes, you read that right). I loved the little touches of technology that felt out of place in a feudal setting, but still worked, like radios and airships. Why did I like it so much? Because a major plot point is the price that they pay for this technology. Without giving too much away, there is a special kind of lotus tree that the Shima Imperium discovered. Its wood is hard like metal, which is good, but even better, the blooms and seeds serve as an extremely efficient power source for technology. It’s kind of like if some botanist created a petroleum tree in our world.
The catch? These lotus trees ruin the soil of anywhere they grow. When burned, the exhaust from it burns the sky, leaving acid rain in its wake. Consequently, the Shima Imperium is plagued by terrible pollution. Most animals are long extinct, and fruits and vegetables are extremely rare. It’s weird to find a commentary on pollution in the name of technological prowess in a novel like this, but it does it in a very non-preachy manner. So when Yukiko and her father find a living, breathing Arashitora (or griffin, I guess), it’s kind of a big deal.
Oh, did I forget to mention? In this world, oni, aka japanese demons, are real, and a huge threat on the outskirts of civilization. A TON of material for sequels there alone.
So, yeah. This book is brilliant on setting.
The characters. Yukiko is a fitting heroine. She can be a bit trope-tastic at times, but she is extremely likable. Her motivations are realistic. She gets involved in a love triangle, but it’s not really a forced thing, and actually makes sense. She can hold her own in a melee, since she is a master hunter’s daughter and trains almost daily.
Buruu, the griffin she befriends, is a pretty cool character too. His “dialogue” ALWAYS APPEARS LIKE THIS, and what he has to starts off as basic animal thoughts, like flying, and eating, and being angry when he can’t do one of those. But as he talks more with Yukiko, he gets slightly more complex in his thought patterns. This makes sense, though, since it’s a major plot point in the novel as well.
But the real standout of this book is definitely the antagonist, the Shogun Yorimoto. He’s definitely a character that you can’t wait to see get his comeuppance. He reminds me a lot of Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones. He acts like he’s tough, but in reality he is a cruel coward. He’s a great heelish character, to the point where I enjoyed the parts where he got insulted. Not even parts that he might get what he deserves, but just the parts where anyone resists him at all. That’s quality writing.
The other characters are well done too, but at its heart, the book is about Yukiko and her animal friend against the evil shogun. Nothing wrong with that.
The writing style. Let me explain. As an English major in college, I read a ton of classic literature. Lots of that literature (Think Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jane Austen, etc) was extremely description heavy, to the point where there are often whole block paragraphs that do nothing but describe a room, or the nature outside a cottage. As a student with a dozen deadlines, I was indirectly taught to identify these kind of paragraphs, and ignore them. Yep, if it’s a big block of description, it’s my instinct to skip it.
Stormdancer has lots of paragraphs like that. Which is fine and great, don’t get me wrong. They’re great for enriching the world Kristoff has created. I actually read most of them, but sometimes I didn’t. Which again, is fine. I’m glad they’re there, even if I didn’t really need all of them to enjoy the book.
The problem is that sometimes, he hides a sentence with actual action in them. So sometimes, I’d be reading and wonder “Hey, wait. Weren’t they just standing in the main square? How are they now up in the sky riding on Buruu’s back?“. Then I’d go back up the page, and find a tiny sentence mentioning it.
I understand this is purely a nitpick as a result of my own reading style, but this is my blog, after all. It’s just a bit description heavy, which is fine, but keep the description and moving action clearly discernible from each other. That’s all.
The occasional tropes. Remember when I said the blurb kind of reminded me of a Disney movie? It almost does. It actually reminds me more of How To Train Your Dragon, which is admittedly not a Disney movie, but close enough. It goes after the same audience, after all. This book leans heavily on two major tropes:
-Boy/Girl meets beast. Beast hates boy/girl at first, but through a series of events and adversity, they grow closer together until they become friends. Hence the reference to Dragon. This trope worked, because the writer put in a great reason for why she could get along with Buruu. But still. It felt slightly rushed.
-Mary Sue love triangle. Every male close to Yukiko in age in this book thinks she’s hot, and wants to get with her. This includes a samurai sworn to the honor of the shogun, and a guildsman whose people are behind the pollution. They should dislike her, or be indifferent, but they both fall in love with her because she’s so goshdarn cute. This could be a lot worse, but the author somehow makes it work.
-Obi-Wan must die. I can’t say more without spoilers, but naturally, the older wiser character dies before they can pass on valuable, useful wisdom.
Now, as you might have noticed, I acknowledge that the writer handles these tropes well. But they’re still tropes, and figure prominently into the plot. The setting is SO GOOD, I was a bit disappointed that he had to fall back on them so much for the actual plot. Doesn’t mean that they weren’t done well, or I didn’t enjoy the book. It was just annoying.
I really enjoyed this book. I’m definitely interested in reading the sequels, and even look forward to when I do. Everything worked, and worked well. But it is not without flaws, flaws that annoy me on a personal level in particular. That being said, I’d still recommend it to anyone looking for an interesting take on a genre mishmash.
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