on 26 February 2013
Well, if there's one book that has had a hype machine going for it this year, it's Jay Kristoff's Stormdancer. No, not a hype machine. More like a hype combine harvester. I've seen this book being talked about so much over the past year, and naturally, I bought into the hype. It had to be good if so many people were talking about it, right?
Stormdancer tells the story of Yukiko Kitsune, who joins her father on a hunt for a rare beast - an arashitora, which literally translates to 'thunder tiger'. (Basically, a griffin.)
Yukiko and her father take to the skies in an airship, and succeed in capturing the supernatural beastie, but their new cargo uses his powers to cause the ship to crash into the mountains. While there, Yukiko earns the trust of the griffin (which she names Buruu), fights demons, and learns of a conspiracy to take down the shogun.
And that's the story in a nutshell.
Now, I really feel like disclaiming this review with a big old 'it's not you, it's me', or 'this just wasn't my cup of tea'. But that's what I find really strange about this book. How could I not enjoy this? It's got telepathic samurai girls, griffins, demons, Shinto mythology, a dystopian steampunk setting, and it's set in feudal Japan! That alone sets it apart from most of what you see on the YA shelves of any given book shop. I like anime, manga, and all the other typical nerdy Japanese things, I used to practice kendo and karate, and I used to take Japanese after-school classes!
So, I don't quite know why Stormdancer wasn't my particular cup of koucha.
To be fair, Stormdancer does have a lot of good things going for it. This book has some really beautiful prose at points, it's always nice to see a badass action heroine, and I genuinely liked Buruu, the griffin. If you do want a steampunk story with a Japanese setting, you wouldn't go too wrong with Stormdancer. That genre is a very small field, after all.
My main problem with the book was that it was so incredibly... boring. It's not the kind where you feel like the author has taken a vacuum cleaner to any interesting parts of the story, it's just very clunky, and certain parts (the beginning, the time on the airship) drag on forever. Thankfully, they get less clunky as the story goes on, and the story nicely wrapped itself up in the last 30 pages, but still. Damn.
You know the beautiful prose I spoke of precisely two paragraphs ago? That is a plus about this book, but... moderation, folks. Moderation. Sometimes while reading this book, I felt like I was wading through a peat bog. The writing just didn't keep my full attention, and I just longed for simplicity at points.
Another qualm I have with this book is the lack of research. It's not that the author has no idea about Japanese culture, or historical authenticity. We're not looking for that, of course. Stephen King once rightly said that research should be firmly in the back of the story, because nobody wants to read a dissertation on the New York sewer system for the sake of authenticity if your characters have to pass through those murky waters. (Paraphrased from On Writing, Mr. King's excellent memoir.)
However, Kristoff really fell foul of this rule. In the first part of the book, we are subjected to very, very lengthy passages about Shinto mythology. Raijin, Susano-ou, Lady Izanami, Amaterasu, etc. It's nice to see that the author knows the legends and mythology, but I soon dreaded every moment where a character would sit down and pretty much say: "Let me tell you a story..." Telling stories around a fire or holding an impromptu history lesson may seem like a good way to weave exposition into the story from a screenwriting point of view, but it just doesn't work nine times out of ten. Nor does it work when characters bounce these stories back and forth between each other, mostly in the first act of this novel.
Other parts of the research were just... just... argh! Look at the second question in this interview:
"I've had people ask if I did a degree in Japanese studies, but the closest I've come is reading all six volumes of Akira in a week. Maybe I'd picked up a lot of detail through film and manga that I've consumed down through the years, but Wikipedia was really my go-to-guy. I have a friend who lives in Japan who I bounce ideas off too."
Wikipedia - your 'go-to guy'. Let that sink in.
Stormdancer itself seems to take place in this weird pseudo-Japan, called 'Shima'. There are pandas, people seem to use Cantonese expressions of exasperation, and there are parts where characters talk about how a word has x number of syllables - when in Japanese it actually has y amount of syllables - and people bow the way a kung fu practitioner would to their sifu, and there's not much detail paid to the clothing of the period.
Our main heroine Yukiko is put into a juunihitoe at one point - a twelve-layered kimono that only ladies of the court wore. Yukiko also shrugs on a thin kimono at one point. There's no such thing as a thin kimono; a yukata maybe, but not a kimono. People might call an Asian-style robe or a long silky cardigan a 'kimono' in the West, but not in Japan. Kimono are extremely expensive, for one thing, and they normally require assistance to get into, whether it's a full-on ceremonial kimono, or a furisode (worn by unmarried women). But what do you expect when this novel was informed by a glut of anime and Wikipedia research? (There's a reason why university professors scream at their students if they source Wikipedia in their essays!)
The speech patterns were another bugbear for me. People say 'hai' all the time, and it just sounds really weird. There's also the matter of the author's constant use of 'sama' to mean 'sir' or 'milord'. On its own. In Japanese, honorifics are added onto the end of somebody's name, and although there are some honorifics where you don't use somebody's name (i.e., senpai), it's still the general rule. Yukiko would be referred to as, say, 'Kitsune-sama'. Not just 'sama'.
I worry for the potential readership of this book. I knew some of the words here and there (shogun, uwagi, tantou, oni), but everything else I had to Google-fu. Only after finishing this book did I find out that there actually was a glossary. This isn't exactly good for those reading the e-book, like I did. It forces you to jump back and forth all the time, and I can imagine it's very annoying reading the physical copy and having to flip to the glossary every two minutes because you don't know some Japanese word. I imagined reading this as somebody who knew nothing about the Japanese culture or language, and it was very frustrating. Shall I write something in French to illustrate my point? I think I will. Forgive me if it's a little bit rusty.
'Yukiko sensed quelquechose. She knew it must have been le dieu de la guerre, but she couldn't be too certain. Buruu, le griffon who helped her escape from a monstre earlier, cocked his head.
MADEMOISELLE INSECTE COCHON SINGE CHIEN, SHALL WE MAKE CAMP?
Oui, thought Yukiko. I will sleep on it. Le dieu de la guerre will give me une vision de rêve.'
When I read a fantasy novel, I don't mind having a small glossary and/or map. Eragon's glossary was nice and succint, and I only had to look at the map once or twice. With Stormdancer, though, this went way overboard. I just don't see what would have been wrong with writing: 'dagger' in place of 'tantou'. Or 'tunic' in place of 'uwagi'. 'Demon' in place of 'oni'. Looking back, I only know some of these words because I got into obscure anime/J-drama with rather historical settings. Not the kind of thing your average anime fan would know, let alone somebody with no experience in Japanese whatsoever.
In summation, the first act was definitely the most problematic. The world-building and mythology becomes incredibly dense, and I found it really hard to care or connect with any of the characters. The second and third acts are slightly better, but there's a lot of chunky prose to get through, and some stand-out moments which may annoy you if you know a bit about Japanese language/culture/history. The action scenes were always fun to read, and there's plenty of badassery going on (hell, I love the idea of the chain-katana!), and Yukiko and Buruu are two very likeable main characters. It's just a shame this awesome concept fell so short for me. 2.5/5.