Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff
Reviewed by Matt Hilliard
19 September 2012
As Stormdancer opens, the capricious young Shogun of the Shima Isles dreams he will ride a griffin to glorious victory in Shima's endless overseas war. The Shogun's elderly chief minister objects that magical creatures are known to be extinct, but the Shogun is typically unmoved by reasoned argument and orders the griffin found. The seemingly impossible task falls to his hunt master, and by extension the novel's protagonist, the hunt master's daughter Yukiko. They consider their mission to be little better than a death sentence given the Shogun's less than merciful response to failure, but readers will be unconcerned. Skeptics are always wrong in fantasy novels, and while the setting of Jay Kristoff's debut novel involves much that will seem fresh to Western audiences, its story sticks very close to established formulas.
Foremost among these formulas is the dystopian young adult novel. The griffin expedition gives the sixteen-year-old Yukiko her first chance to really see and understand the world as it really is, and the more she learns about Shima's regime the more she wants to fight against it rather than serve it. While she confronts her world's problems, she must also deal with an array of issues in her personal life, including an absent mother, two potential love interests, and her troubled father, who has buried himself in gambling and alcohol. All of these elements are developed competently, if quite predictably, and are neatly resolved by some not-too-startling revelations at the end of the novel. Judged as YA, Stormdancer hits all the appropriate notes but falls well short of the genre's best, which may explain why the publisher isn't labeling it as a YA novel.
The other major formula the story follows is that of the traditional epic fantasy novel, though this is less obvious at first. Although Stormdancer feels like a self-contained novel when considered as dystopian YA, through the lens of epic fantasy it is book one of an as-yet unbounded series. Groundwork is laid, questions are asked, but few answers arrive in this volume. At the beginning of the book everyone takes it for granted that magical creatures have been driven extinct, as have most mundane creatures, by Shima's runaway industrialization. In this world combustion engines run on oil from lotus plants (called "chi" by the characters but not strongly distinguished from petroleum), and in its pursuit of more chi the government has worked with the monopolist Lotus Guild to bulldoze the countryside and create ever more lotus fields worked by slaves captured in the overseas war. Chi can power airships (but apparently not heavier-than-air flight), rocket packs, and clockwork exoskeletons, but it also fills the air with so much pollution that everyone must wear goggles to protect their eyes (it is animals' inability to comply with the steampunk dress code as much as the destruction of habitat that has caused an ecological collapse).
Yukiko is tied to the now-vanished world of magic and a functioning ecosystem because she can communicate telepathically with the few animals she encounters, a talent she must keep secret in a society that considers magic an impurity which must be expunged. When rumors of the griffins' extinction turn out to have been greatly exaggerated, we all know she will form a bond with one, and when she does she finds herself increasingly in contact with the griffin's world of oni (demons) and Shinto deities. Shima has driven out the fantastic with its over-the-top embrace of modernity, but pushing out the fantastic in these stories just makes it come back with a vengeance. The title of Kristoff's series is The Lotus War, so it seems reasonable to expect that over a currently unknown number of books Shima will be dragged into a better balance between magic and technology.
For now the pendulum is still far to the technological side, and the same is true in the novel's marketing, which is very anxious to position it as steampunk. At first the airships and goggles make this seem uncontroversial, but not only is Imperial Britain absent, it's been replaced not by its period Japanese analogue but by a grab-bag of Japanese historical tropes. Shima's aggressive embrace of technology and its overseas ambitions feel vaguely appropriate to Japan after the Meiji Restoration, but it's led by an autocratic Shogun from a line who, like the historical Tokugawa shoguns, have displaced the traditional emperors to lead a samurai warrior caste. Then there's the environmentalist guerrillas who burn lotus fields and bomb factories only to disappear into the countryside, an understandable reaction to Shima's ecological catastrophe but one that feels very modern in its methods and ideals, and a rejection of Shinto religious beliefs led by the Lotus Guild that doesn't fit with any part of Japanese history. This diffuse approach to culture would be enough to make any novel feel less than cohesive, but it's more of a liability for a steampunk story that already must rationalize its exaltation of impractical technologies.
While people are fighting, flying, and threatening each other Stormdancer isn't much impaired by its lack of historical identity, but the problems begin when the action slows down and the story tries to bring in weightier themes. Any adventure story about a teenage girl will say something about the role of women in society whether it wants to or not, and Stormdancer has some blandly affirming things it wants to say on this topic. Yukiko is certainly a very active protagonist, an impressive feat given she spends much of the novel in the company of a magical creature who is far stronger, far more knowledgeable, and even far better able to understand the intentions of other humans than she is (the griffin has virtually nothing at stake in the story beyond his friendship with Yukiko, so when a decision must be made his advice is always to pack up and leave Shima, advice always overruled by Yukiko). Like women in the adventure stories of the not-so-distant-past, the important men in Yukiko's life are family or potential love interests, and whichever they are she must frequently save them from dystopian steampunk refrigerators. All that is well and good, but surely it raises the question of what Shima's society at large will make of an active sixteen-year-old girl?
Here is where the novel's historical hodgepodge works against it. For most of the novel, Shima's society doesn't seem to care one way or another. That the hunt master's teenage daughter will accompany him on the hunt and take an active role attracts absolutely no comment. Also almost entirely unremarked upon is the fact that one of Yukiko's father's two assistants, Kasumi, is an unmarried working woman of early middle age. Kasumi and Yukiko even spar with wooden swords on the deck of their airship without getting more than a few looks, a particularly jarring moment because they are not samurai and at other points the story is at pains to remind us that only samurai are allowed to use swords (despite two different covers depicting Yukiko with a katana; in the story she fights with a dagger). From all this one might place Stormdancer among the growing ranks of fantasy novels that merge the trappings of the past with the modern world's gender roles, but women do not seem to work on airships or serve in the military, and later in the novel the Shogun's sister gives Yukiko a speech that sounds like it comes from, well, many other books:
Women in this city, on this island, we do not seem like we are important. We do not lead armies. We do not own lands, nor fight in wars. Men consider us nothing more than pretty distractions. Do not for a second believe that this means we are powerless. Never underestimate a woman's power over men, Kitsune Yukiko. (p. 233)
She goes on to say that men think "with their loins," that beauty is a woman's weapon, and so on. But if women can't own property, why isn't Kasumi bound to her male relatives? Does this restriction on women only apply to the upper nobility? And what about the purity-obsessed Lotus Guild, who despise traditionalism and wear exoskeletons that hide their identity and even their voices? All of these things can be reconciled, but unfortunately the story's approach to worldbuilding means the reader can only wait for the author to provide definitive answers, because until he does the reader can't fill in any blanks on their own.
None of this will bother readers willing to sit back and enjoy the ride. You may be able to look at the track and guess where Stormdancer's roller coaster is going, but that doesn't mean it's without genuine appeal. There's an exuberance to the setting which must in part come from the knowledge that it is breaking some genuinely new ground for the steampunk palette. Samurai wear power armor and swing chainsaw katana, demons gather in remote places to be slain by the heroine and her allies, and airships share the sky with magical creatures. The only things missing are dragons and ninjas; perhaps they're being held in reserve for the sequel slated for next year. But maybe it would be better if they weren't: the setting is more than capable of carrying a full series already, and now that it's been established, what the series needs is a story that's not forgettable by comparison.