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.
Autographed Stormdancer hardback contest ending soon!
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.