AN EXTRAORDINARY GIRL STANDS UP TO DEFY AN EMPIRE
THE START OF THE LOTUS WAR TRILOGY IS A GRIPPING STEAMPUNK ADVENTURE WITH A PSEUDO-JAPANESE AESTHETIC
(The Lotus War, Book 1)
Genre: Historical Fantasy, Steampunk
Publisher: Tor UK
Format: Paperback, 465 Pages
Date: 13th September 2012
What do you do when a novel with a premise you find intriguing, garners numerous scathing reviews from book bloggers you follow, thereby putting you off reading it? In this particular instance, having noted that many of these bad reviews were actually, less than subtle, attacks on the author, I simply ignored the reviews and subsequently read the book. And what a good decision it proved to be; Stormdancer is an engrossing tale of one girl’s journey from reluctant, disdainful acceptance of the status quo, to becoming the focal point for armed rebellion against an oppressive empire.
It is difficult to pigeon hole Jay Kristoff’s genre bending first book of The Lotus War series. At the base level, Stormdancer, is a steampunk adventure set in a world ostensibly based on Japanese folklore and culture; though clearly owing more to the author’s love for Japanese Anime, rather than actual in depth research and knowledge. Simmering beneath the surface, however, is a coming of age tale for a young heroine who learns, among other things, the value of true friendship, what love for one’s family really entails, as well as the sacrifices that must be made in order to accomplish seismic change, for the greater good.
Whether intentionally or otherwise, Stormdancer also touches on some socio-political themes, most notably that of environmentalism; the damage caused by industrialisation is a major constituent of the story, and is constantly highlighted by the author. (I don’t know if Kristoff is a proponent of Green politics, but it is an easy inference to make while reading the book.) The story also addresses the issue of terrorism, and whether or not it is an appropriate or justifiable means, in the pursuit of political change in a society where dissent is not tolerated, and brutally suppressed.
The book is set in the land of Shima during the reign of the Kazumitsu Dynasty at the height of an industrial revolution that has polluted the skies, poisoned the seas, and is slowly killing the land and its people. The empire is ruled by a warmongering, psychopathic, young Shogun, whose power is cemented by the Lotus Guild; the quasi-religious organisation that drives the industrialisation of Shima, supports its overseas imperial war efforts, dictates the social norms of the population, and tightly controls the media throughout the empire.
The Guildsmen of the Lotus Guild prowl the streets in all-encompassing metal suits that they never remove in public. They are greatly feared by the populace, principally because of their zealotry in purging the empire of The Impure; people who are deemed to be tainted with unnatural abilities from the spirit realm.
It is against this backdrop that the author introduces the novel’s teenage protagonist, Yukiko, of the Kitsune clan. Yukiko is an angry and resentful young woman; and justifiably so. For one thing, unbeknown to all but her father, Yukiko is one of The Impure. She has the gift known as, The Kenning; the ability to communicate with and control animals. If her secret were to be discovered by the Lotus Guild she would be publicly burned alive on a pyre. Having observed this fate befall so many other people, Yukiko has developed a deep antipathy for the established order that permits these atrocities, in addition to its complete disregard for the harm inflicted upon the environment by the pursuit of excessive industrialisation.
But much of Yukiko’s bitterness is the by-product of her abandonment issues. She has suffered the loss of a beloved family pet that sacrificed itself to save her life. She was an impotent witness to the tragic death of her brother. And the most crushing loss of all was when her mother mysteriously walked out of her life, without so much as a goodbye. Yukiko holds her father, Masaru, responsible for her mother leaving; a resentment that has been compounded by his subsequent descent into drug addiction, essentially causing her to feel parental abandonment for a second time. If that wasn’t bad enough, Masaru is also a loyal servant of the empire; the designated Master Of Hunters for the tyrannical Shogun, Yoritomo.
It is quite apparent that Kristoff dedicated a great deal of time and effort on the world building for his story, as well as creating back-stories for the main characters. So much so that he simply had to hit readers over the head with it all. The first sixty-to-seventy pages are rather tedious as a result; firstly because there is a considerable amount of information dumping early on. Secondly, and much more annoyingly, he spends an inordinate amount of time describing in minute detail, the physical appearances of characters, the actions that they perform, the clothing they are wearing, how the technology works; even what the architecture and landscape look like. Mercifully, he does ease up on the overdone descriptions once the setting has been well established.
The story finally gets going once Yukiko accompanies her father and the crew of the sky-ship, Thunder Child, on an impossible mission for the Shogun. Yoritomo has demanded the capture of a live Arashitora; a mythical creature, half tiger and half eagle, that dwells in stormy skies. Yoritomo wants his prize in time for the bicentennial celebrations marking the founding of the Kazumitsu Dynasty, and to boost morale for the ongoing, decades long, war effort against the Gaijin “barbarians” overseas. There’s just one snag, however. Arashitoras do not exist; at least not any more. But this technicality doesn’t deter Masaru who sets sail into the skies, knowing that failure to complete the mission will almost certainly be a death sentence.
Predictably, it transpires that Arashitoras are not as extinct as first feared. The Thunder Child does indeed encounter one, but the mission to capture it goes tragically wrong, and the sky-ship is destroyed. Yukiko finds herself stranded alone in the Iishi wilderness; the only area of Shima that remains untouched by the Lotus Guild’s industrialisation. She is not alone for very long.
Here in the unspoiled Iishi lands, Yukiko, forges two unlikely friendships. Her Kenning gift allows her to communicate with, and eventually befriend the enraged Arashitora that is now confined to the ground, having temporarily lost the ability to fly. She names him Buruu in memory of the childhood pet she loved so dearly. The second friendship is with the Guildsman who had been a crew member of the ill-fated Thunder Child.
This marks just the beginning of Yukiko’s journey. Subsequently, she inadvertently comes into contact with the Kage; an underground resistance movement, she views as terrorists, responsible for numerous acts of violent sabotage against the empire. Slowly, Yukiko begins to sympathise with the motivations and goals of the group, culminating with her decision to not only assist the Kage, but to spearhead an operation, which if successful, will plunge the empire into bloody revolution.
Stormdancer maybe slow to get going, but once it does it is unputdownable. Though it’s not without flaws, this is how the first book of a series should begin. The stakes are high, and the consequences, of both success or failure, are stark. And the story’s gripping climax will leave you eagerly anticipating the sequel. I certainly can’t wait to get my hands on book two. So what are you waiting for? Add Stormdancer to your reading list immediately; you’re in for a treat.
In light of the nature of the bad reviews I have read for this book, I feel it necessary to make the following suggestion. If you are someone who objects, in principle, to a white western author writing a novel that, superficially at least, is based on the history and mythology of another culture he has little knowledge of; and you view such an endeavour to be a disrespectful act of cultural appropriation, this book is not for you.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.