The Shima Isles are on the brink of ruin. The empire practically runs on chi, a substance extracted from the bloodlotus plant which fuels its engines but also poisons its soil, kills its animals, and keeps its people addicted with its opium-like qualities. The wars of conquest against the barbarous gaijin are stalled. The citizens live in poverty and pollution while the young, murderous shogun Yoritomo and his court live in luxury.
As Stormdancer starts off, there’s been a recent sighting of an arashitora or “thunder tiger”, a near-mystical creature previously thought extinct. The shogun immediately dispatches his Master Hunter Masaru to catch the griffin-like animal, hoping it will bring glory to his name and help turn the tides of war, but it’s Masaru’s beautiful daughter Yukiko, accompanying her drug-addled father on the hunt, who will build an unlikely bond with the arashitora and change the empire forever…
Stormdancer is being billed as “Japanese steampunk”, and that’s actually a great description of the novel. Debut author Jay Kristoff has created a fantasy universe that strongly resembles feudal Japan with a large amount of interesting steampunk elements: samurai with chainsaw katana and powered armor, mysterious lotusmen using mech-abaci, and of course the requisite airships. On top of that, there are also mystical creatures like the arashitora and a forbidden type of magic (the “Kenning”) that allows people to communicate with animals. The result is a surprisingly interesting fictional world: Japanese steampunk may sound like an odd combination, but Jay Kristoff makes it work.
On the other hand, the type of fantasy dystopia created by Jay Kristoff really isn’t anything new. The concept of an all-powerful empire polluting the world and keeping its population oppressed, enslaved and/or doped up has been done before. (See also: Mistborn, B. Sanderson, and Acacia, D.A. Durham, for the two most obvious comparisons.) The Japanese steampunk elements are nifty, but after a few chapters it becomes clear that the underlying structure of the world, which drives the narrative to a much larger extent, is pretty recognizable.
Furthermore, even though Japanese steampunk is undeniably cool (as Patrick Rothfuss points out in his cover blurb) the setting is unfortunately the best aspect of this novel by far. Stormdancer suffers from several flaws that, when all’s said and done, overshadow the initial delight I felt at discovering and exploring the setting.
My main issue with the novel is that, at times, it’s wildly, ridiculously, over-the-top melodramatic. I don’t want to go into too much detail to avoid spoilers, but my goodness – the melodrama! Entire character arcs and plot developments wouldn’t look out of place in a soap opera. In addition, the writing is so full of trite, overused similes that, if you removed the fantasy and steampunk elements, you’d be left with something straight from an overcooked romance novel or a set of cut-scenes from a mediocre role-playing game.
There are a few moments, especially later on in the novel, where Jay Kristoff rises above this depressing level of writing and creates a genuine sense of excitement and powerful drama. There are even a few welcome and very effective flashes of humor. Unfortunately, those moments are few and far between. I can only hope that Jay Kristoff will be able to deliver more of these in the sequels to Stormdancer, because as it is, his readers will be familiar with the interesting setting by the time book two is here, so the flaws that lie underneath its surface will become much more apparent.
I had high expectations for Stormdancer, and that’s at least in part because of that cover blurb from Patrick Rothfuss (which is sure to generate a ton of sales), but even aside from that, it just looked like a promising debut. I was ready to be excited about this one, but in the end, it didn’t work for me at all. The setting is neat, sure, but it takes more than an interesting fantasy world to make a good novel.