Sometimes, I think there must be something wrong with me. When I sit looking over the myriad - well, 36! - glowing reviews for an over-hyped novel such as Kristoff's 'Stormdancer', I'm left feeling utterly bemused.
Let's start by saying that - surprise! - I didn't enjoy this novel. It is in fact remarkable that it comes across as so intolerably dull, despite blending feudal Japan with steampunk, mythical beasts, and a tantō-wielding heroine capable of telepathy! That, surely, is a recipe for unbridled success. And yet, no! From the very first chapter onwards, I found 'Stormdancer' to be tedious to the extreme.
For one, it is not very well written. Kristoff labours his prose with great lashes of description, endless paragraphs, which, standing on their own, might come across as well structured and occasionally lyrical, but are instead piled one after another, bogging the story down to such an extent that it takes over 100 pages before we meet the griffon, Buruu, who's character is secondary only to Yukiko herself. From this point on the story does pick up, though it's got to be said that it counts for little, given its prior level of sloth. I honestly think 'Stormdancer' could have done with being around 200 pages long. One needs a really good reason to tell such a limited story in more than that; Kristoff's reason is that he's long winded and indulgent.
And as for characterisation... Urgh, Yukiko is so uninspired. She might have special powers and a thundertiger as companion, but that's about as far as Kristoff goes towards making her interesting, let alone likeable. There has long been a problem with fantasy heroes/heroines being overtly liberal, often laughably unsuited to the medieval-esque societies in which they've supposedly been brought up. Authors often get away with it, and I don't usually mind too much. Yukiko, however, has got to stand as one of the most anachronistic characters I've ever come across. She is clearly of our 21st century world, concerned with climate change and the the lives of those less fortunate. I found this aspect frightfully jarring. If this wasn't enough, she is furthermore simply dull. You can rely on her to do the right thing, and think the right thing. She was for the most part entirely two dimensional. Also, providing Yukiko with a love-interest in the shape of Lord Hiro, seemed quite beyond Kristoff. It's been a while since I've come across such a bungled and unneeded 'romance'.
Other characters are actually slightly better. Buruu himself is very likeable, if out and out nicked from 'How to Train Your Dragon''s Toothless. The best written and most interesting character was Yukiko's father, Masaru. He is wonderfully flawed and I found myself caring for him most of all. Actually, the story told from his perspective would possibly have been superior.
I found the world building itself to be limited. The actual concept is, I think, a great one. Who wouldn't want to read about a steampunky feudal Japan? It's not altogether original, and certainly not to the extent some readers have made it out to be. A lot of it, for instance, is directly lifted from Japanese mythology. (In fact, Kristoff actually seems a little smug on occasion, insisting on having his character 'tell stories' to one another in order to reveal his knowledge of Japanese culture!) As for the rest, it was mostly fairly generic. There's the Empire's capital, and then an obliterated land scarred by the nation's addiction to technology and the 'lotus' fuel on which it runs. All the usual tropes of a steampunk world abound, from gas masks and flying ships, and samurai in clockwork mech suits. It should come across as wonderfully indulgent, and, I admit, there are occasions when it does. But personally I never found enough originality to anything. It was all strangely familiar, with content lifted from countless other sources, particularly anime and manga.
Finally, 'Stormdancer's plot was near enough to non-existent. Most of it is given away in the blurb, and from there it follows the generic fantasy outline of good versus evil that I won't bang on about. I waited and waited for a twist that might surprise me, trusting to reviews that I was going to be left gasping at some point, bowled over by a move I hadn't expected. But no. By the last chapter my cynicism was merely confirmed. 'Stormdancer' is a victim of fantasy's deadliest pitfall; predictability. Kristoff's utter banality wasn't enough to provide the distraction needed to make this novel either interesting or enjoyable. I can count on three fingers the number of occasions when I went, "Huh, that's cool." For the rest of the time I was slogging away, hoping and hoping, but only ever getting increasingly bogged down.