Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review: Stormdancer

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff
Title: Stormdancer
Author: Jay Kristoff
Pages: 438
ISBN: 9780230759015
Series: The Lotus War #1
Publisher: Tor
Published: September 2012
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy from publisher


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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?
Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer is a unique steampunk fantasy infused with Japanese-inspired culture and mythology set in a world on the brink of ecological collapse caused by the very lifeblood that fuels the cogs of its civilisation. Throw in a strong female protagonist with a telepathic ability to talk to animals and you’ve got a recipe for success.

Stormdancer received loads of hype during its release, so I was a bit weary. More often than not I find myself disappointed with novels touted as the next big thing, but this one lived up to all the hype (for the most part).

The story centres around Yukiko and her father, Masaru, who are given a nearly impossible task by their deranged Shogun - to capture an Arashitora (griffin) which came to him in a vision. During the hunt for the Arashitora Yukiko is separated from her father; fighting for survival she finds an unlikely ally in the very creature she was sent to capture. In her travels she encounters a wide scope of characters; from rebel fighters to artificers and royalty. Her long-held worldview is shattered as shocking truths come to light and she is forced to decide whether to take a stand or to sit idly by while great injustice inflicts a terrible price on the land and its people.

Stormdancer is beautifully written with vivid descriptions that bring the world and the characters to life.
‘Bloodshot eyes stared across the gulf between now and the days when she was a little girl, small enough to ride on his shoulders through forests of tall bamboo. She and her brother, little fingers wrapped in their father’s fists, laughing bright and clear as they danced in the dappled light.
Too long ago – the memory faded and blurred like an old lithograph, colours muted over time until all that was left was an impression; a half-image on yellowed, curling paper’ (p 102)
At times this attention to descriptive detail slows the flow of the story down (especially at the start when the building blocks of the world are set in place), but I found myself so engrossed in the world that I didn’t mind. I guess I’m just a sucker for beautiful descriptions.

All the characters are well-fleshed out and burdened with their own motivations and struggles. Strangely enough I didn’t care much for Yukiko until the bond between her and Buruu (the griffin) came into play. It was interesting to see how this bond grows and how they bring out the best in each other. Another character I was particularly drawn to was the somewhat tragic figure of Kin with his unrequited love and dismal existence as an Artificer.

After a slow start the pacing picks up considerably and in the last half of the novel you won’t be able to put it down as events start to unfold at a ferocious pace leading to a poignant conclusion that is satisfying in itself, but will leave you craving more. While the plot is somewhat predictable, especially for longstanding fantasy fans, there are still enough twists thrown in to keep you on your toes.

One of the biggest criticisms voiced against Stormdancer is the liberties Kristoff has taken with the Japanese language and culture used in the novel (see The Book Smuggler’s view). Personally I didn’t have problems with that since my knowledge regarding Japan is minimal at best, but I can see how this would irk someone more familiar with the culture. I did find the frequent use of Japanese words somewhat confusing at first, but the glossary at the back of the book came in handy for the moments when the meaning wasn’t clear from the context or when I had to quickly reacquaint myself with their meaning.

Verdict:
Stormdancer is a very enjoyable coming of age story filled with action, love, intrigue, beautiful prose and superb world-building. Provided you can look past the liberties taken, Kristoff has done a great job with his debut novel. I’m enthralled by the world and definitely want to see more. The stage is now set; let’s see what he comes up with next.

Recommended!

The Rating: 6.5/10 (Good)

The title for the second novel in the series has been revealed. Kinslayer will be published in September this year. (I just hope that title doesn't imply what I think it does...)

Thanks to Kelly from Pan Macmillan SA for providing the review copy.

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