Stormdancer: review

October 25, 2012 2012, 4.5 star books, australian authors, jay kristoff, mature themes, steampunk, Wendy 75

by Jay Kristoff

When a book arrives with a massive amount of fanfare, in the form of glowing advance praise and accompanied an agreebly affable author, it’s necessary to take a step away from all the hype to ensure that a review isn’t influenced by outside factors. Which I did–I avoided reviews, fled the country (okay, that wasn’t just to read this book), and read it away from much of the joyful noise that surrounded the book’s release.

After the promise presented by the author’s description of the story as “telepathic samurai girls and griffins in steampunk feudal Japan,” I’m happy to find that this particular novel proved to be an exciting and memorable a reading experience. Stormdancer is nearly operatic in its scope and grandeur, and young Yukiko’s reluctant quest to find a supposedly extinct griffin–and her subsequent relationship with the fierce, noble beast–is both thrilling and moving.

The thing is, the reasons why this book is so fantastic are partly why I also had trouble with its beginning. The writing is beautiful, with strong world-building and a meticulous attention to detail that left me slack-jawed with awe at times. But there is far too much description in the first 100 pages or so, where the story plods along very slowly, weighed down with ornate descriptors and exhaustive detail. Reshaping the opening chapters and weaving the history and world of Shima into the narrative more seamlessly would have helped tremendously with tension and pacing.

There is a sincerity and purity in this prose, however, that I very much appreciated. Nowhere did I get the sense that the author was trying to flaunt showy words or to distract the reader with “purple prose” sleight of hand. Rather, it seemed to me that words just poured out in an intensely focused, if seemingly endless, stream in an earnest attempt to make us thoroughly understand this devastated society that Yukiko lives in. It’s true that isn’t until the thunder tiger Buruu puts in an appearance that the spark of imagination really catches fire. But oh, what a fire it is! The magnificent aerial battle as twenty men strain to contain this furious legendary creature is unforgettable–and Yuki’s relationship with Buruu is definitely the strongest and most appealing facet of this book for me. It’s impossible not to be touched when the proud, crippled arashitora says succinctly, FEATHERS GROW BACK. SISTERS DO NOT.

Other things I loved: the action and fight sequences. Chainsaw katanas. The scenes in which Buruu’s humor peeked through. The dangerous politics of an empire controlled by ambitious and ruthless men. The (quite topical) cry of mercy for a dying land.

I do wish that I felt more for the somewhat under-nuanced secondary characters, however, and that the romance in particular felt more urgent and anguished and real. I’ve also seen, in passing, a number of reviews that have touched on inaccuracies in Japanese culture and customs. It seems perfectly reasonable and understandable to me that specific knowledge will influence a reader’s review of this book; I am mostly and somewhat blissfully unschooled in that area, however, so I found nothing in particular that bothered me. I also tend to look on fantasy with a more lenient eye (true story: there weren’t griffins in feudal Japan, either!), similar to the way I might indulgently overlook broad caricatures in martial arts films and the like–but it’s fair to say that those who are intimately familiar with Japan may well find more sticking points than I did. Still, it seems worth noting that this is Shima, a place inspired by Japan, not the actual country.

This isn’t a book that all readers will enjoy and it’s certainly not a perfect one, but for many fans of traditional fantasy–or even occasional fantasy readers like me–this wildly imaginative adventure is lightning that strikes in just the right place. Remember the name Jay Kristoff, because this spectacular debut blazes a fiery trail across oft cloud-laden skies. I for one, cannot wait to be swept away with the next installment of the Lotus War. And I may even get to ride a thunder tiger next time…

Rated 4.5 out of 5 stars

This review also appears on GoodReads. An advance copy was provided by the publisher.

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We’ve extended our contest, so there’s still time to enter to win an autographed copy of the beautiful hardcover. Hurry and fill out the entry form before we choose a winner!

Our hilarious and wildly informative interview with Buruu can also be found here.

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75 Responses to “Stormdancer: review”

  1. thebookfairyhaven

    Oh your review is made of so much win Wendy. this one’s been sitting on my shelf for a while now, and after reading your review, I’m definitely pushing this higher up on my list of books to read next. I love the world that you’ve described and as someone who is actually a fan of descriptive settings, I get the feeling I’m really going to enjoy this one. Like you, I must admit to not being schooled enough in traditional Japanese customs, so I’m pretty sure the issue a few bloggers had with the book won’t bother me too much. Wonderful, wonderful review Wendy!

    • Wendy Darling

      Thanks, lady! I hope you get a chance to read it soon, Tammy. It’s a great book and I think you’ll appreciate the author’s writing. Let me know what you think of it!

  2. Lili

    You have me really excited for this one now! I have a copy, but it keeps getting pushed down on my TBR because I’ve been getting other things that I want to read, but I’m definitely going to move this back up on the must-read list!

    Thank you for the amazing review.

    • Wendy Darling

      It’s such a great book, Lili! It may require some patience, but I think there’s ample reward for those who stick with it. Thanks so much for stopping by. :)

  3. Sarah (saz101)

    “The thing is, the reasons why this book is so fantastic are partly why I also had trouble with its beginning. The writing is beautiful, with strong world-building and a meticulous attention to detail that left me slack-jawed with awe at times. But there is far too much description in the first 100 pages or so, where the story plods along very slowly, weighed down with ornate descriptors and exhaustive detail.”


    And it really is an utterly splendid book, but… it does start very slowly, and I wonder if that estranged a lot of readers. You know what they say about firs timpressions. But. It’s just…such a wonderful, gorgeous book, and your review. Your review is just perfect.


    • Wendy Darling

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  4. Belle

    Yay, so glad you enjoyed this one. It seems like everyone does! I need to get onto reading it asap.

  5. Ash @ Paranormal Indulgence

    “But there is far too much description in the first 100 pages or so, where the story plods along very slowly, weighed down with ornate descriptors and exhaustive detail.” This was the main problem for me, and ultimately my attention began to waver so that I was easily confused by the piling of information and it got to be unpleasant. Still, like you, I recognized Kristoff’s earnestness in his writing and the absolutely beautiful relationship between Buruu and Yukiko. I just didn’t feel it as much or as well as you did, sadly. So happy you loved it though! And I love your review – it hit the key points, the highs and lows, while still eagerly singing its praises. It got me excited for the book even though I’d already read and had a decidedly less enthusiastic reaction to it.

    • Wendy Darling

      I totally get why people have had trouble with this one, Ash. It’s funny how we both had similar thoughts about the writing but just different emotional reactions, isn’t it? Variety is the spice of life!

      And thank you. It’s hard to balance honesty and tact and enthusiasm all at once, hah.

  6. starryeyedjen

    Hmm. I guess I’m going to have to move this one up on my reading list. I have a galley, but I had heard that it was a little tedious in the beginning and was waiting for the right time to sit down with it. I love fantasy. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. It’s probably my favorite thing to read because there IS such an expectation for suspension of belief. Most fantasy is widely unpredictable to me, and for someone like me who reads too much for her own good, that’s tops on my priority list. Great review, Wendy Lou!

    • Wendy Darling

      I am wildly curious what you’ll think of this one, Jen! I will be on the lookout for your status updates and such. I hope you get a chance to read it soon, it’s a book that deserves and audience, though I certainly understand that it’s not for everyone.

    • Wendy Darling

      Thanks Andrea! I think it’s a tricky book for many readers, especially those who don’t read a lot of adult fantasy books, which this is closer to than YA, in my opinion. Still, I’m one of those people, so you never know. ;)

  7. Neyra

    I love your review Wendy! ^-^ I also think that during the first 100pgs the story sort of drags, but I felt it was necessary for us to understand the world Yukiko is in. I struggled mostly with trying to pronounce some words, rather than the pace, though lol. And I loved Buruu! He was my favorite of all. Just everything about this book was awesome! Looking forward to reading the second book as well! :D


    • Wendy Darling

      I defy anyone NOT to love Buruu. ‘m so glad you loved it too, Neyra!

      I agree, I think much of the set-up we got was helpful in understanding Shima and the state it was in. I just wish it had been incorporated into the storyline more somehow, in no small part because I think it loses a lot of readers as it currently stands. But still, there’s ample reward for those of us who stick it out. :)

      We will have to compare notes in a year’s time on the sequel…

  8. A Canadian Girl

    I haven’t gotten around to reading this one yet but I’m hoping to soon. The relationship between Buruu and Yuki sounds amazingly done and I love it when my books are action-packed. I too heard about the inaccuracies regarding Japanese culture, but I don’t know much about that time period so I probably won’t be as picky about those.

  9. Heather@The Flyleaf Review

    I am SLOWLY making my way through this book, Wendy. And your description of it being nearly operatic is SPOT ON. It’s been something I wanted to take slowly because, to me anyway, it’s pretty meaty. So I skimmed your review but WILL be back to hear all your thoughts after I finish my own reading:)

    • Wendy Darling

      I originally had this whole metaphor likening STORMDANCER to an opera–in which the beauty isn’t so much in the main point of the story, but in the beauty of the language and words. But then I decided that the main point for me was that the book was too overly descriptive in the beginning, so that comparison didn’t really work, hah.

      The beginning was a bit of a struggle to get through at times, but I really do view that as more of an editorial issue than a writing one. Because the words are beautiful–they just needed some trimming and reshaping, in my opinion.

      I look forward to hearing what you think of it when you’re done, Heather!

  10. Renu

    I absolutely adored this book, the action scenes were awesome! The only negative aspect for me was the overly detailed descriptions, but other than that it was epic. My favourite character has to be the Thunder Tiger, I loved the connected between him and the mc.

    Great review, Wendy!

  11. Joyous Reads

    Not really a fan of steampunk and it’s very rare that I indulge in fantasy books. Though reading about a feudal Japan seems interesting at first, I’ve never really gotten the appeal of this book. While I understand Jay’s need to be descriptive-happy, I tend to lose interest in long narratives. And this sound like it’s oozing with it.

    Thanks for the insights, Ms. Wendy!

  12. Rachel

    I don’t know if this is a story for me. I tend to lose interest when the story is overly descriptive, but I’ve seen a lot of glowing reviews so who knows. Glad you enjoyed this and wonderful review, Wendy. :)

    • Wendy Darling

      I won’t lie, Rachel–I found my attention wandering in the beginning and at times it got a little frustrating. I’m glad I stuck with it, but I totally get why it isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.

      Thanks for stopping by, though! :) Always lovely to see you.

  13. Kajol Gupta

    Lovely review! I’ll be recieving my copy of this book within this week. After reading your review, I just can’t wait to start!

  14. The Teen Book Guru

    Fantastic review, Wendy! I have this on my bookshelf and you make me want to drop what I’m reading currently and pick that up! I think it’s great how you stepped back and kind of ignored all the praise Stormdancer’s gotten while reading it. I love what you said about Jay not being too showy with fancy words and all–it’s so true, some authors just try to impress with vocab and it never works! >.< Great review, doll!

    • Wendy Darling

      I think you really have to try to ignore the hype when you read books like this. And you have to ignore what impressions you’ve formed of the author from social media so that you can stay honest, too–a trickier thing these days as reviewers and authors inhabit more and more spaces together.

      Thanks for your lovely comment. :) Hope you enjoy the book when you get around to it!

  15. Bookworm1858

    I was really slowed down by all the details in the beginning, which really dragged down my rating overall. I also loved the line “Feathers grow back; sisters do not.”

    • Wendy Darling

      I don’t blame you for that at all, Bookworm–I can see why people have trouble with that part. But I’m guessing you found some things you enjoyed about it also, then?

  16. Michelle @ In Libris Veritas

    I am so glad you enjoyed it Wendy! I’ve heard some people become critical over it as well, but I don’t see the point when it comes to fiction…especially alternative history/fantasy. I use to watch japanese anime (with Oni and demons) a great deal so this was far from strange to me, and I think that having that knowledge before hand really heightened the experience for me.

    • Wendy Darling

      I’ve watched a decent number of Asian films with epic quests and battles too, Michelle, and I’m not unfamiliar with the Japanese culture. It’s surprised me to see the intensity of the tone of the some of the negative reviews I’ve seen, but then again, it’s not my own culture that is at issue.

      Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed it, too! :) I think the very definition of speculative fiction includes the fact that it’s…not fact, hah.

    • Wendy Darling

      Ooo, hope you enjoy it as much as I did, Christy! Lucky you, winning a copy of the book. :) Someone just told me on GoodReads that after reading my review, she just wants to call in sick so she could read this, hah.

  17. Amanda

    That sounds like a smart thing to do – shying away from super hyped-up books before reading it yourself. Maybe at some point I’ll be able to have that sort of resolve. I agree with you that I tend to overlook fantasy with a more lenient eye. I don’t think Kristoff ever said that this was supposed to be an exact replica of feudal Japan and I have read reviews where people are overly critical about issues like that. Although I suppose I should read it myself before forming too strong of an opinion here.

    • Wendy Darling

      I actually try not to read any reviews of books I’m planning to read soon, Amanda. With this book, there were crazy raving GoodReads status updates and tweets all over the place, so it was harder to avoid seeing all that, though I tried.

      In this case, after I read the book, I saw some of the negative reviews in passing, and while I have the feeling there is some validity in some of the complaints, I wanted to write my review from my perspective–and that was one that wasn’t bothered by any cultural missteps that was made. Still, it could be that I’ll be so horrified by what I read that I’ll look at the book a different way, hah. But it doesn’t change the fact that I enjoyed the book very much and I suspect many others will, too.

      I’d be curious to hear what you think of this if you get around to reading it!

  18. Candace

    I’m glad you loved it! I thought it was a bit long winded at the start as well, but because it was so gorgeous and well wrote I didn’t see it so much as a negative. I just ADORE Buruu though and am so anxious for more!

  19. Shirley

    I’m so glad you liked this despite the heavy decriptions in the part of the book…I have to admit, I read the first chapter (or prologue? Can’t remember…’ ) and the descriptions were a little overboard for me. But I still really want to meet the other characters! And it’s set in JAPAN! I think that alone is enough to make me finish it :) Fantastic review Wendy!

    • Wendy Darling

      I don’t normally advocate this, hah, but if you’re struggling, I’d almost recommend skimming the first 100 pages or so, Shirley–shhh! It’s a book I think deserves to be read, and one I think many readers will appreciate–if they can just get past the beginning. ;) Let me know if you end up reading it!

  20. Keertana

    Incredible review, Wendy! I definitely agree that I had a tough time wading through the beginning of this book and it had plenty of flaws, especially in terms of the under-developed side characters and romance, but I loved it despite all that. I adore epic fantasy, so Kristoff’s world was a breath of fresh air. I can’t wait for the sequel now! :D

    • Wendy Darling

      Thanks Keertana! I actually read very little fantasy, so I’m pleased that I liked this so much! And yes, it’s going to be a long wait to find out about the other arashitora and such. *sigh*

  21. Christina

    As always Wendy, your review is perfection in its honesty, insightfulness and entertainment value.

    Like you, I struggled a bit in the first hundred or so pages. I loved the writing and thought it felt natural (no purple prose – a phrase I just now learned) and well-matched to the tale. The world, too, is captivating and glorious in its detail. However, that’s pretty much all we get in those pages and I read primarily for compelling characters, so that was a bit rough. Once Buruu comes in, though, shit got totally AWESOME.

    Yeah, chainsaw katanas. I had to throw in a reference to those too, because so freaking cool.

    I also agree about the secondary characters – I didn’t really care about anyone aside from Buruu and Yukiko. Thanks so much, as well, for mentioning the Japanese culture thing. I’ve seen a lot of those reviews and they strike me as somewhat unfair. I get why it’s annoying, and, had I not learned what Japanese I know from pop culture like Jay Kristoff did, I might be bothered too. However, as with Shadow and Bone, I don’t see that a fantasy world inspired by a particular country/culture has to adhere one hundred percent to the real country. It’s Japan-ish, not Japan. He even gave it a different name!

    Many will struggle with this one, I think, since epic fantasy certainly isn’t a genre for everyone, though I do suspect more people are trying to like it what with the popularity of Game of Thrones.

    • Wendy Darling

      Oh Christina, you always manage to leave the most thoughtful comments! I have to admit, Yuki and Buruu were the only ones I really cared about, too. There were some attempts made with her father for sure, but that all felt a bit predictable to me, so I wasn’t as moved by it as I probably was meant to be.

      I’m so glad you agree about the reviews that criticize how the Japanese culture is handled. I do understand a certain amount of frustration, but I’ve been a bit taken aback by the wrath that I’ve seen unleashed. I understood this to be Japanese-inspired, just like you–and thanks for confirming that S&B is also Russian-inspired. That’s just as I thought, as I know that book was severely criticized for the liberties it took as well.

      I agree, I think the fans of this book will be the ones who already enjoy fantasy and perhaps YA fantasy. It’s a hard sell for anyone who doesn’t have the patience to let the story unfold. I saw so much promise in the descriptiveness of the writing and the imaginative story, however, that I was able to bide my time–and I’m glad I did.

    • Christina

      It’s so nice to find someone who shares my opinions. The wrathful reviews maligning the culture-inspired books for not getting every detail correct really upset me, as I enjoyed both books and found that criticism rather unfair. I do think it’s perhaps worth mentioning, but knocking off more than a star for that alone seems rather harsh, since, so far as I know, the authors never made any claim to be writing about the actual country. Were they to set it in real history, they would be required to take a lot into account that would not necessarily fit what they’re trying to do. Of course, if I read a book that did something like that to German culture, I might be bothered. Who knows?

      With all of the buzz this one got pre-release and even pre-ARCs-in-circulation, I didn’t get the sense that much of it focused on the fantasy elements, but more on the steampunk, teen heroine and dystopian ones. Most of the negative reviews I saw were either nitpickers offended for Japanese culture or people who clearly do not like fantasy lured in by false impressions. It really saddens me when marketers sell a book somewhat falsely, because it can result in a lot of unneeded bad reviews. Then again, maybe some people discovered a love of epic fantasy when they picked up Stormdancer; I hope that’s the case.

  22. Amy

    I have been putting this off and I really need to get to it. It sounds really great. Thanks for the awesome review!

  23. Natalia Belikov @ Dazzling Reads

    Oh my…! Wendy you left me speechless! I have this book here which I was super lucky to win and I heard about the hype and liky you, I have avoided reading reviews, but I cant help read yours because I just love your writing so freaking much! Good God! I wish I could read this book now but I have a few for review. However, this book deserves to be read with time so I can taste every word and imagine every single moment of it with all its glory!

    Thanks for the wondrous review. Im saving a special spot for it on my calendar (and bookshelf!)


    • Wendy Darling

      Natalia! How lucky you are to have won a copy of the book. You’re right to find some time to savor this one–it requires a little patience at first, but I think you’ll have a great time with the characters once the story starts to get rolling.

      Thanks for the lovely visit, as always. xo

  24. Hannah Milton

    I heard about this book a while ago and decided to read it simply because of the fact that it has CHAINSAW KATANAS.

    Thakfully, you said the rest was good, too. I’m going to have to pick it up!

  25. Kelly

    I thought I was definitely reading the wrong book, when for the first 100 pages (like you mentioned) I was just drowning in beautiful descriptions. I am glad I trudged through though, because what came after was stunning!

    Lovely review Wendy!

    • Wendy Darling

      Heh, “drowning in beautiful descriptions.” :) I’m really glad we both stuck with it, because there was certainly ample reward. I’m glad you enjoyed it too, Kelly! Thanks for stopping by.

  26. Sam

    Wonderful review as always, Wendy. This book wasn’t for me, unfortunately – because of what you mentioned about the first 100 pages – but I’m glad you enjoyed it. :)

    • Wendy Darling

      Thank you, dear Sam. I’m sorry this one didn’t work for you–sometimes I want to tell people to start on page 100, hah. Will you be trying out the next one, do you think? I’ll have to search for your review on GoodReads when I get the chance!

    • Sam

      I didn’t end up finishing the first one, so I don’t think I will continue. But I’m sure book 2 will get amazing early reviews… no doubt I’ll be curious again. ;)

  27. Erin W.

    This was the book I was most looking forward to this year since I LOVE the Japanese culture not to mention the cover as well, but unfortunately I was pretty disappointed with the book. Still . . . the author does have a beautiful way of writing and I can see why so many loved it. Great review!

    • Wendy Darling

      Aw, I’m sorry you were disappointed by some aspects of the book–I certainly understand some of the reactions I’ve seen, but I’m glad you enjoyed the writing overall. Thanks for stopping by, Erin!