Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review of the Week: Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

Jay Kristoff's debut novel Stormdancer, entered the market on a cloud of positive buzz, helped by a fantastic premise and a cover blurb by none other than Patrick Rothfuss. It was the strength of both that prompted my purchase, and I am certain I am not alone. An endorsement from one of the most highly regarded new voices in the genre in the last decade carries a lot of weight. Sadly, I was left wondering if Rothfuss actually read the entirety of the novel.

The premise of Stormdancer is definitely unique. Kristoff's Shima is Japanese flavored steampunk full of chain-saw katanas, a power mad emperor, samurai wearing mechanized armor, airships and did I mention a griffin. The excitement surrounding this novel is no surprise at all. It seemed almost guaranteed greatness. While it has, no doubt, sold very well, critical reception has been very mixed. This seems to be one of those you love it or you hate it books. Casual readers will likely enjoy the engaging world and characters that populate Stormdancer. Readers with a more critical bent, may have a drastically different experience.

I fell into the latter category. For as many things as Stormdancer has going for it, it has just as many problems. Strength of premise and a fantastic pre-release buzz were just not enough to elevate this story beyond the myriad of problems I encountered. Stormdancer is flawed on so many levels that I was unable to enjoy the story Kristoff was trying to tell. Between the uneven pacing, inconsistent world building, unbelievable character development, and cultural appropriation I had a really hard time even finishing it. Which is sad, because I really wanted to like Stormdancer. 

The uneven pacing seems to be the most telling of the early flaws in the novel. Kristoff starts with an action packed sequence, showing us not only our protagonist, Yukiko, but the arashitora or thunder tiger fighting a pair of demons. The action is tight and flows well, and there are just enough hints to make us wonder about how this sixteen year old girl ended up fighting side by side with a mythological beast. If the following chapters were written half as well as the first chapter, Kristoff wouldn't be facing the torrent of criticism that seems to surround Stormdancer. But he doesn't, rewinding the story and launching into chapter after chapter of exposition with very little exciting forward movement. I slogged through the first 120 pages or so. After that, things pick up speed, but there is no gradual ratcheting up of the pace here. We go from coasting along to breakneck speed, and things never really slow down until we are at the final pages.

This causes problems, because character arcs are shortened, keeping them from developing naturally. The two most egregious examples are the relationship between Yukiko and Buruu, the aforementioned arashitora. When Yukiko's father captures Buruu, he cuts off the arashitora's flight feathers in an attempt to break the beast's spirit. Through Yukiko's link with the creature, we are privy to its thoughts. Understandably, they are not charitable at all. But it takes no time at all for Buruu to learn to trust and even love Yukiko though their psychic bond. Kristoff isn't so foolish as to make it a complete about face, but he spends so little time working through the process that the relationship seems contrived and this caused it to ring false at least for me. The second instance that I found particularly off-putting was Yukiko's relationship with the Hiro, the samurai with the green eyes. I'll talk more about the eye color later, but having Yukiko who seems to swoon over this non-character for reasons that are more juvenile than can be attributed to this otherwise resourceful and competent young woman. The relationship like Yukiko's relationship with Buruu moves too quickly and seems to only be there to set up a love triangle and to tell us repeatedly how our heroine knows she is being a foolish girl before continuing to moon over the green-eyed samurai. Given more time these relationships could have been more believable and meaningful, but at the pace Kristoff is setting they come off as shallow and uneven.

The world building in Stormdancer is equally haphazard. While Kristoff has said in interviews that Shima is not Japan, his statements hold no water with me. The language(when he gets it right), cultural norms, weapons, clothing, food, and all of the creatures we encounter(with the exception of the arashitora) are all taken straight from Japan. I'm not an expert on Japanese culture, but with twenty years served as an instructor and student of Japanese martial traditions, I think I am more than qualified to say that if Kristoff wanted this to be Japanese inspired rather than a Japan that never was, he should have tried harder. With that said, the non Japanese elements contained in the story are jarring because the setting is so richly infused with all things Japanese. There are pandas in Shima, and characters use Chinese phrases and a lot of British slang to name but a few of the standouts. These elements stand out so much that they ripped me out of the story and left me scratching my head. In a barely three hundred page novel, these things detract for more than they might have spread out over more pages. Packed so closely together, they just make the writer look lazy.  

Which brings me to the issue that seems to be the biggest sticking point with reviewers, cultural appropriation. As I've stated above, there is little use in denying that Kristoff has borrowed or appropriated most of the elements of his setting from Japan. It stands to reason that it is important to treat the borrowed culture with respect, and try to portray it as accurately as possible. I know it's a fantasy story, but if you want to run rough shod over a culture, invent your own.  Kristoff seems to pay little attention to accuracy in the language especially in the correct use of honorific terms. In other passages, he has characters translate their own language into English in the midst of internal dialogue. His treatment of women and the caste system of Japanese society is uneven, he uses the correct approach only when it suits him. For example, women are portrayed as subservient to men in almost every setting in the book, except when dealing our protagonist or members of her family. Yukiko is also obviously a member of the samurai caste, given her families long service to the Emperor, yet she seems to be not allowed to wear the swords that would be her birthright. And then there is the green-eyed samurai. Native Japanese do not have such eye color, and to use such a feature to make him somehow more desirable is an insult to the culture that Kristoff owes his entire setting to. It's sloppy writing and with all of the other flaws made Stormdancer a major disappointment, especially given the hype and possibilities of it's premise.

I'm certain Stormdancer will sell plenty of copies, and there will be countless casual readers who will eagerly gobble up anything else Kristoff publishes in this series. And that's okay, I won't be one of them until I see evidence that he's found a way to balance the cool of the story with a whole lot more craft.  


  1. I ended up really enjoying this book at a level of pure entertainment. All of the negative reviews seem focused on those darned green eyes and the savaging of Japanese language. Makes me wonder if the key to loving or hating the book is whether these end up being insurmountable objections. I shook my head at the silliness of things like green eyes, but it never got under my skin.

    For what it's worth, my big hang-up was actually "chi" used to describe the mechanical fuel, when to me it can only mean the Chinese concept of life force—something totally antithetical to lifeless machinery. And even that didn't get me so wound up that I couldn't set it aside and enjoy the book.

  2. I think you are dead on the money about whether the objectionable bits of the book become so distracting that they detract from the readers enjoyment. If it hadn't been for the sheer number of things I found distracting/objectionable I might have found myself enjoying Stormdancer a bit more. But as it was, I just couldn't.

    I caught the chi mistake as well, and of course the Japanese have a similar concept 'ki' that amounts to much the same thing. But since the idea of chi or ki is one of energy the reference didn't bother me as much, but I was perplexed why Kristoff wouldn't use the Japanese word instead.