I really wanted to like Jay Kristoff’s debut novel Stormdancer, first in the Lotus War trilogy, but it was not for me. There were many good things about it, like the extent of Kristoff’s research into Japanese culture, or his attention to details in world-building like the economics of farming and wearing out the land, but there were many other aspects that bothered me.
Part of my problem was expectation. The book is marketed as Japanese steampunk, which is misleading. It’s steampunk in the sense that there are artificers, airships, and goggles, though goggles seem to be somewhat decorative, as people periodically take them off with no ill effects.
It’s not set in Japan; it’s inspired by Japan. The problem then becomes, without using actual Japanese history, how you reconcile the development of the culture: where the code of Bushido comes from, or how it fits in with the very Shinto gods—with the except of Enma, who’s just kind of there.
This is no different than the problems of incorporating Norse or Celtic myth, but it’s rarer, but I wasn’t satisfied. Maybe I’m being overly picky because Japanese-inspired fantasy is rarer; I’m also conscious of the ways in which Kristoff’s interpretation isn’t like mine, which doesn’t make it wrong, but it does bother me. (I spent a lot of time with Japanese mythology for one of my undergraduate theses; I may not be an expert, but I’m pretty well versed in the subject). Again, I give Kristoff points for through research. What he did with the purity cult was clever, and I liked reading the retelling of Izanagi’s trip to the underworld. Yet because I was so conscious of the differences, the analytical part of my brain was in high gear during my reading, which in this case adversely affected my enjoyment of the book.
I’ve heard some complaining that he really should just call “thunder tigers” griffins, but that didn’t bother me. However, I worry that for someone without any background in Japanese culture, there are way too many foreign words too quickly. Some words he deftly defines in-line, but I don’t think he defines yokai outside of the glossary. References to arashitora and nigirizushi and ryu won’t throw me off because I speak Japanese, but all those new words plus new descriptions creates a steep learning curve.
Now, as for the story itself. I hated the first chapter. Not at the time, but in retrospect, because it really confused my sense of chronology. It’s out of sequence just to begin everything with a bang and maybe to start off with a Yukiko chapter, but it confused me more than it helped.
I really liked Yukiko as a protagonist, though I think the arashitora is the best character and has a great character arc. Yukiko is active, and though others try to push her around and influence her, she makes her own decisions and she grows a lot. I also love that we have a woman going on a quest and wreaking havoc on people’s clearly seen visions.
The POV bothered me. It’s third person, but I felt like it kept zooming in and out from limited to omniscient. Omniscient always makes me want to know who the narrator is, and the really zoomed out bits I don’t think were necessary; I would have preferred a much tighter POV, which is a matter of taste, but at the least I wish it had been more consistent, because I found the shifts jarring.
Although there are some serious issues addressed, too many issues didn’t make sense or only had token arguments against them, and it felt very didactic. Though Yukiko protests at first we never get a good explanation for why the kage might be problematic. If the shogun is so awful, why hasn’t someone already assassinated him? Why does anyone listen to the guild if all they’re good for is building weapons and burning people? What are the reasons for growing lotus, or for the war? Everyone we see who approves is evil, but there must be a reason besides just making money. Otherwise, why is yukiko supposedly the only person asking these kinds of questions who isn’t a rebel?
I also found the plot unsurprising. On one hand, this is good, in that the story ended the only possible way it could have. On the other, well, nothing surprised me.
I guess the verdict is that this book is probably better than I am giving it credit for. The story execution is solid, there is a wide range of character types, and there are a lot of interesting issues to wrestle with. I love that it’s an Asian-inspired fantasy, but I’m not sure how effectively Kristoff is walking the line between inspired by and based on Japan. I like inspired by, but if that’s what you’re going with, you have to fill in all the holes that history doesn’t. Even my critical self can see there are good things in there, but there are too many that bothered me to have enjoyed the book.