Cheryl: He gave me five rings, bowed twice, and has such lovely hair.
Justin: That’s all it takes to get through? What happened to that training I paid Myke Cole to give you? OPERATIONAL SECURITY, Cheryl!
Cheryl: Lt. Cole couldn’t stop talking about China Mieville. I’m pretty sure he thought because I worked for you I actually gave a shit.
Justin: *sigh* I suppose I should check in on our guest. Hello, Mr. Miyamoto.
Justin: Right. Well, how can I help you?
Justin: You’re unhappy with something.
Justin: Ok, because this is becoming pretty predictable, odd historical figures showing up at the office that is, I’m going to guess it has something to do with the book I just finished, Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff.
Musashi: *angry* Hai!
Justin: Interesting. Can you elaborate maybe?
Musashi: Is it not obvious Justin-san?
Justin: Well, yeah, I mean you’re probably pissed off about the misappropriation of Japanese culture and language.
Justin: To be honest, Musashi, as much as I’d love to give you a forum to rant about Jay Kristoff’s hand waving, I’m just going to point you to someone who did it a lot better. Head over to You’re Killing Me. It should be a cathartic read. Oh, and while you’re at it, read this from the Book Smugglers. I found the part about the “green eyes” very eye opening.
Mushashi: *bowing* Arigato.
Justin: Wow, that play on words went over your head didn’t it?
Musashi: Not impressed.
Justin: *shrug* That was easy. I guess I can just write my review now, huh?
Cheryl: There’s a novel idea. A reviewer writing a review instead of having an asinine conversation that I have to type up later. I’m going to have to type this up later, I should stop talking.
Justin: Thanks, get me a copy of this exchange ASAP, I want this post up by tonight. Now, let’s see. . .
Stormdancer, blurbed by Patrick Rothfuss and heavily marketed by Thomas Dunne Books, is billed as Japanese steampunk. It’s Jay Kristoff’s debut novel and as far as I’m concerned it’s a colossal failure. That is to say, I’m puzzled that anyone bought it, and utterly bamboozled how it went to a three-way auction.
Before I get too far into my critique I should mention that Kristoff writes well enough. His prose is easily digestible and it made reading Stormdancer tolerable. He capably lays out his story, revealing information in a way that makes sense, doesn’t seem dishonest to his reader, and covers his bases. If I was evaluating a home being auctioned off in an estate sale whose previous owner had fourteen cats and no litter boxes, I would say, “it has good bones.” Unfortunately, once you own the home it still smells like cat piss and one man can only carry so many bottles of bleach.
Am I saying Stormdancer smells like cat piss? I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it’s definitely not a bottle of Febreze either. The novel begins with Yukiko, a teenager girl of the royal huntsman, fighting off a few demons with the help of an unknown beast. Kristoff quickly rewinds the story to weeks earlier when his teenage protagonist has to drag her drunken father out of a card game. They spend the next several chapters walking (yes, walking) to the palace where they’ll be meeting the Emperor to discuss his dream of capturing a griffon on which to ride in his conquest of the gaijin.
This long walk provides Kristoff with an incredibly boring (and lazy) opportunity to lay out his world. It’s dirty, polluted, and run on something called lotus, which is basically bio-diesel with an emissions profile that makes gasoline feel good about itself. Rather than show the reader that over the course of the narrative, Kristoff rams it home in the first hundred pages, demonstrating a complete lack of awareness when it comes to pacing and leaving absolutely no time whatsoever to develop the novel’s emotional center (I’ll come back to this)
Yukiko and her father, despite knowing that the Emperor’s egregious environmental policies have killed off all the wildlife, are honor bound to do their lord’s bidding. Wouldn’t you know it, they find a griffon just as their lord predicted. Yukiko, or as I preferred to call her in my mind, the Beastmistress, manages to bond with the griffon and shenanigans ensue. What’s really ridiculous though is how that bonding takes place — rapidly and without underlying support. Once again Kristoff falls into lazy storytelling, waving his hand at the fact that the griffon loathed Yukiko two pages before he’s her soulmate.
And this gets back to the notion that Stormdancer has no emotional center. Not because Kristoff doesn’t want it to have one, but because he invests no time in actually developing it. He wants his reader to believe that his world holds women as second class citizens and yet Yukiko never once feels the sting of it. Kristoff tells me she would, but she’s able to live her life almost entirely as she would in a progressive culture. Likewise, moments of betrayal and death, or success and vidication, should bring with them corresponding emotions. Instead, Stormdancer is so focused on the (extremely) heavy handed application of steampunk cum industrial revolution demonizing that it can’t see the forest for the trees (because they’ve all been cut down!).
What it comes down to is that Stormdancer perhaps more than any novel I’ve read this year, or since I’ve started reviewing fiction, makes an almost conscious effort to check every box on the list of things that are “tired” in genre fiction. For example,
Young Protagonist Coming of Age
Bonding With Magical Creature
Unnecessarily Cruel Ruler
Betrayal From One Closest
Loyalty From Unexpected Places
Rebellion and Sacrifice
I’m going to leave it there in an effort to not spoil anything specific. I admit that even in light of this review, and the dozens of others beyond the two mentioned at the start, many will want to read Stormdancer. It’s a gorgeous cover from a hugely reputable publisher. Kristoff seems by all accounts to be a funny, likable guy, who has occasionally stepped in it with flippancy. Just as I don’t begrudge a rubbernecker slowing down on the highway as they pass a five car pile-up, nor do I begrudge my fellow readers to read this novel to form their own opinion.
Nevertheless, I want everyone to keep in mind that if Stormdancer were a self-published novel the community writ large would be crucifying it for lazy storytelling, sloppy world building, and woeful cultural misappropriation. Let’s not give something a pass just because it’s got Patrick Rothfuss’s name on the cover and Thomas Dunne Books on the spine.