Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

Stormdancer Final US cover3Justin: Cheryl, why is Miyamoto Musashi sitting at my desk?

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.

Musashi: …….

Justin: Right. Well, how can I help you?

Musashi: ……

Justin: You’re unhappy with something.

Musashi: Hai.

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.

Musashi: Hai.

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 Final US cover2

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,

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Standard Fantasy:

Young Protagonist Coming of Age

Lost/Dead/Unstable Parents

Bonding With Magical Creature

Unnecessarily Cruel Ruler

Betrayal From One Closest

Loyalty From Unexpected Places

Rebellion and Sacrifice


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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.

Justin Landon

Justin Landon is the Overlord of Staffer's Book Review. When he's not writing things of dubious value to the world, he's at the gym or being a dad. You can follow him on a multitude of social media, which is strongly suggested lest you miss out on vital information that could someday save your life.

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  • Kathryn September 24, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    You’re not the first to criticise this book. It got a really big marketing push, some lovely covers – but it flopped a bit.

    The inclusion of occasional Japanese strikes me as bizarre, because I would assume full translation would occur with dialogue. So whilst they’re technically speaking Japanese/French/Galactic Basic, it’s translated into English. So “Hai” would become “Yes”, assuming the tiny Japanese I knew hasn’t leaked out of my ears. If someone doesn’t have a grasp of Japanese, they won’t understand what these terms mean or have any context for them – so they won’t know a -san suffix is affectionate (right? I forget).

    Glad I didn’t pre-order this, truth be told. If I want Asian-inspired fantasy, then I’ve got Malinda Lo’s Huntress, and I don’t need anything else.

    • Justin Landon September 24, 2012 at 4:44 pm

      Hai REALLY means, I understand. It actually doesn’t mean yes, although it can mean yes at times. The first review I link goes into detail on it. It also goes into detail on the English/Japenese trick you mention. Particularly when Kristoff occasionally describes syllables in his prose that doesn’t match up to Japanese syllables. It’s nitpicking to some degree, but also lazy.

      I didn’t care for the same trick when Brad Beaulieu did it with Russian in his books, although he handled it far better than Kristoff (seemingly).

      • Kathryn September 24, 2012 at 5:14 pm

        Ah, fair enough. Been a long time since I even had a fringe interest in manga/anime so I forgot stuff.

  • Becky LeJeune September 24, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    Well that blows. I was really looking forward to this one.

  • Herb September 24, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    Re: “cultural misappropriation,” as someone with English, Scottish, and Irish heritage, I have this to say: Welcome to the club.

  • Herb September 24, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    I think all the heavy non-fiction I read has led me to go easy on weak/lazy plotting, etc. I notice it, but I just don’t care. The lack of subtlety in the social commentary is another story, though.

  • Jordan September 24, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    Thanks for this, Justin. I’ve been on the fence about Stormdancer for a while. On the one hand, Japanese-influenced steampunk. On the other, an obvious political agenda the author wants to shove down readers’ throats. I find this very distasteful in fiction, no matter if I agree with said politics or not. The fact that everyone has been gushing glee over this book almost made me turn a blind eye to the anti industrial slant. Now that I know how poorly it is executed as a novel, I will save a few bucks. Nice to know I can get an honest review here! Thanks again.

    P.S. I’m in to my second Parker novel because of your reviews. Very glad for your recommendations.

    • Justin Landon September 24, 2012 at 10:09 pm

      Jordan, if I’ve turned you on to Parker, I can call it a day. Mission accomplished. This blog was all worth it.

  • Jared September 25, 2012 at 3:51 am

    “Let’s not give something a pass just because it’s got Patrick Rothfuss’s name on the cover”

    If you insist.

  • Bibliotropic September 25, 2012 at 7:37 am

    This is a real shame to hear. I’m probably going to still end up reading it, and I might even still enjoy it as fluff fiction (I have a bit of a weakness for humans bonded to magical creatures or animals, so long as it’s done decently), but I don’t have my hopes too high at the moment.

    I did wonder how a basic knowledge of Japanese might influence my reading of the story, mind. I flipped it open in a bookstore and saw that it takes place in the Isles of Shima. The Isles of… Island? That bit alone made me raise an eyebrow, and I hadn’t even looked at the story yet!

  • Johann September 25, 2012 at 9:26 am

    I for one liked it. It’s certainly not the deepest book I’ve ever read, but I thought it was quite fun.

    The Japanese things didn’t bother me at all. It was nice to read something not based in medieval Europe or Victorian England. And, as it’s a fantasy book, I don’t care how historically accurate it is or if the usage of the language is real-world correct. I see it as the authors prerogative in their strictness of adhering to their inspirational areas and cultures.

    I saw the bonding of Yukiko to the Griffin as something that was fated, even if the griffin didn’t want to accept it at first. All the stories of the Stormdancers and their steeds told throughout the book made it seem as if that’s the whole point of being able to do talk to animals.

    As I’ve said, not the best or deepest book, but still a fun read. I’ve read a lot worse.

  • Rob B September 25, 2012 at 9:59 am

    This book seems to be one of the more divisive published in 2012, with very little middle-ground. At least from the reviews/reactions I’ve seen. There’s a thread on eviscerating the novel, of which I’m sure you are aware.

    At the least, it is great to see Cheryl on the relaunched blog!

  • neth October 1, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    I finally finished this one. First, I’m not as negative on it as you, but I certainly see the points. I’ll need to expand my thoughts into a review, and it’ll certainly be mixed, probably leaning negative. As you say – it really checks all the boxes on standard epic fantasy. So, this book could serve as a great introdcution to epic fantasy for someone (probably young) who is not familiar with the genre. But for those of us who have read widely in the genre, it makes this book eye-rolling predictable.

    And, I have to say it. As much as I hate it when people criticise a book as being too ‘YA’, this would be the book to fit that criticism. It embraces much of the simple and bad of YA without hitting the good. I can see this book working well for a teenager, but for those of us with a bit more experience, it’s hard to swallow.

    So, in typing this, I realize that my review will almost certainly be quite negative, though I’ll be highlighting how I think this book can work for the right audience – that audience simply isn’t well-read adult fantasy fans.

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