Steampunk is a genre that I feel like I ought to be more engaged with, given its ties to cyberpunk and its opportunity for telling modern stories in a pre-modern setting. With that in mind, I eagerly jumped onto Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff, which I first heard about in a Big Idea post from John Scalzi’s “Whatever” blog.
Stormdancer takes place in the land of Shima, which is a steampunk-style version of Edo period Japan. Technology has advanced to an industrial and motorized level thanks to the fuels known as blood lotus and chi. The Shogun rules Shima with the help of the fanatic Lotus Guild, keeping the people in line while the land slowly dies from pollution and toxic dumps. When the Shogun has a vision of riding an arashitora or “thunder tiger,” he sends out Yukiko Kitsune’s family in search of the mythical beast. What follows is a tragic airship ride, a journey through deadly forests, battles with mythological demons, and a plot to expose and overthrow the corrupt leadership of the Shogunate.
At first glance, Yukiko didn’t interest me as a protagonist. She seems to be an action girl whose only real flaws are bitterness about her ruined childhood and poor impulse control. Her father Masume and his companions Kasumi and Akihito seemed a lot more interesting by comparison, having a more colorful history and good camaraderie. But Yukiko gets better when she forms a bond with Buruu, the arashitora that her father attempts to capture for the Shogun. Their friendship is the real heart of this story, as the two begin to rub off on each other and their temperaments begin to blend. It’s a maturity that makes for a good Hero’s Journey and does a lot to improve Yukiko as a protagonist.
Yukiko’s journey also takes her through different parts of the constructed world of Shima. What Kristoff does well here is to take the steampunk genre and show how all that technology would impact the environment. For all the shiny new airships and radio stations, there’s also a toxic atmosphere in the cities and several species of mythological beasts going extinct. The need for resources only gets worse through the fanatical rule of the Lotus Guild and the Shogun’s war with an unnamed Western power. Instead of giving us a shiny and optimistic steampunk world, we get a gritty setting that would fit many modern-day tales.
While the steampunk development came off well, I had to wonder a little at the integration of Japanese mythology into the story. The arashitora is a great character and a good focus for the novel, but there are other elements that don’t quite fit. It doesn’t help that sometimes the story crawls to a halt in order to give the reader a lecture on a Japanese folk tale or heroic legend. I’ve also read other reviews where some Japanese-speaking readers were questioning Kristoff’s use of Japanese words and terminology, and how accurate he was. Though I’ve tried to reserve judgment myself, I do wonder how well a non-Japanese author can portray Japanese history and culture even with the best intentions. But in any case, the mythology and linguistic elements do add more color to the world of Shima, if nothing else.
At the end of the day, Stormdancer is still a pretty fun and engaging read, whether you’re a steampunk fan, a samurai admirer, a Japanophile, or a mythology buff.
Bibliography: Kristoff, Jay. Stormdancer (The Lotus War Book One). New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2012.