REVIEW: Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff
Please tell me I’m not the only person who’s fallen victim to this. You hear a premise for a forthcoming book. It sounds so great that the potential awesome overwhelms everything else. You overlook some crucial details like, for example, the background of the author writing it. In other words, your enthusiasm clouds your judgment. You never stop to think how this could go so terribly wrong.
You’d think after all this time, I’d know better.
When I first heard the premise for Stormdancer, I was excited. Yay, fantasy that’s not based on Western cultures. Yay, steampunk that’s not set in Europe. At first glance, this seemed like a winning combination. I never stopped to think of the ways in which this could fail and looking back, I really should have.
Stormdancer tells the story of Yukiko who, along with her father, is charged by the shogun to find and capture a griffin, which had been previously thought to be extinct until now. The shogun saw one in a dream, you see, so this means one must exist! (If you find yourself thinking that this shogun character sounds like he might be a raving megalomaniac, you’d be correct.)
So Yukiko and her father round up some allies and head out on this doomed mission. Much to their surprise, however, they do encounter and capture a griffin. Unfortunately, that’s the only thing that goes right for them. Everything else ends in disaster and Yukiko finds herself stranded in the wilderness, her only companions an enraged griffin and someone who could bring her a death sentence. Now Yukiko must find her way back, even as she learns the truth behind the glory of their civilization.
In theory, that premise doesn’t sound terrible. I’ve certainly read worse and I’m sure other readers have too. But there are so many flaws in the execution, I don’t know where to begin.
First of all, the so-called cultural research. Where was it? Look, if an author is going to write a book using elements from a culture not their own, I expect a certain amount research and respect. Anything less is cultural appropriation. And having finished this novel, the only research I can see came from a few anime series, maybe a couple Miyazaki films given the heavy ecological themes in the novel, other Asian-based fantasy novels (Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori comes to mind), and Wikipedia. Really?
I can’t even call the random Japanese dialogue fangirl Japanese because it’s used wrong. Even fangirl Japanese uses the -sama honorific correctly. And maybe this was the author trying to alter language to suit the novel’s setting but no, this is not how it’s done. The vocabulary abuse drove me up the wall. It seriously was like fingernails on a chalkboard.
I’ve since been informed that the author insists that while the novel is set in a world that looks like Japan, it’s not actually Japan. Thanks for pointing that out. It’s not like that wasn’t obvious or anything, given that it’s a fantasy featuring a griffin. I can only view that as a cop out and handwaving for authorial laziness. Sure, it may not be Japan but there is a shogun who rules over the land. There are samurai, geisha, and oni. Many articles of clothing and types of weaponry are referred to in Japanese. The in-world cosmology is lifted straight from the Kojiki: the epitaphs for each of the book’s sections reference Izanagi and Izanami. The sun goddess Amaterasu, her brother Susanooh the storm god, and the thunder god Raijin are mentioned in the text consistently. I’m sorry but at this point, you can’t claim this isn’t Japan. It may be a Japan that never was, but the basis is clear.
But I suppose that handwaving is necessary. Otherwise, what other explanation is there for the presence of pandas and the characters’ usage of Aiyah! as an exclamation? Neither of these things are Japanese. They are Chinese, however, which makes things worse in my eyes because fiction, and in particular fantasy, has a long history of conflating various Asian cultures and viewing them as the same. They’re not and in the case of Stormdancer, which uses Japanese culture so heavily, the random peppering of Chinese cultural elements is especially jarring.
And cultural fails aside, the story’s execution is just not good. The first 50 pages are full of clumsy infodumping. It’s like the author got caught up in the shiny idea of Japanese steampunk!! that he forgot about the plot. On the other hand, those pages do showcase an impressive use of Wikipedia. So many weapons and articles of clothing are referred to in the Japanese (not that there are any graceful English equivalents) without much context that I began to doubt whether someone not versed in the source culture would be able to follow. A lot of it is extraneous and seems to serve the purpose of proclaiming that research was done. But these details, in the end, are superficial. They won’t fool people who know better.
The plot finally starts 50 pages in and by 100 pages, the action begins moving. But in a 300-page novel, that’s an awfully long time to get going. I know we joke about epic fantasy doorstoppers in which the first 50-100 pages set the stage but they’re called doorstoppers for a reason. Some of those books are over 1,000 pages long. Stormdancer‘s 300+ is tiny by comparison.
As for Yukiko, she highlights a common problem in fantasy novels that proclaim to feature a “strong female protagonist.” Don’t get me wrong. Her introduction was fine. But maybe because of that, I noticed something else in those first 100 pages. Every female background character was either a geisha or prostitute. There are two exceptions: a dying woman labelled as one of the Impure and her daughter. This immediately put me on alert. Asian women are often sexualized in media portrayals and seeing geisha pop up every five pages did not put me at ease.
Later in the novel, there’s a scene in which Yukiko’s allegiance to the shogun is revealed to people rebelling against him. The sign of this allegiance? A tattoo. And how did they find out? Two guys spied on her while she was taking a bath so we can get an icky scene in which two random dudes ogle her naked body. How nice. It’s great when a “strong female protagonist” is objectified because apparently her strength and agency don’t matter if she doesn’t look good naked. There are a million ways in which this reveal could have been executed and this was the option that was chosen? Did we want to show off the anime influences? Because if you watch enough, particularly in the harem subgenre, you’ll come across a scene like this.
And it’s not just Yukiko. There are other women warriors in this novel. One is an adulteress. Another is lethal in a fight but again, that doesn’t matter if she doesn’t look hot while doing it:
The girl slid down into a split, kimono riding up around her hips
None of the male fighters are described like this. None of them are showing off body parts that many people consider sexy and erogenous. None of them are described as horrible homewreckers.
Which brings us the romance subplot, such that it is. Yukiko spends a good majority of the book daydreaming over a certain samurai’s dreamy green eyes. Sure, whatever, I’ll roll with the inane depiction of a hopeless crush. I read lots of fantasy books. There have been worse portrayals. But then it becomes apparent the book is setting up a nerd versus jock dynamic. In this case, it’s a samurai versus engineer-type dynamic: the buff guy with the dreamy green eyes and the frail guy in the insectoid exoskeleton.
The problematic gender portrayals had already made me uncomfortable by this point so when I realized what the romantic dynamic was going to be, I was permanently alienated by the narrative. You see, the engineer guy loves Yukiko. He’ll do anything for her! But does he ever tell her? No. She should be able to read his mind and know his feelings. She should reciprocate his feelings and not be hung up over this other guy. The narrative might as well call her an ungrateful slut and be done with it, because that’s definitely the message it was conveying. And as astute readers can surmise, the plotline resolves in exactly the way you think it will. Guess who betrays her and who stays true to the end?
I’m embarrassed that I fell for this hot mess. I really do wish for more diversity and cultural portrayals in the fantasy and YA genres, but I can do without books like this. The only reason I’m not grading this an F is because the book is readable on the prose level. But it was a very close thing. D
Maili warned me to stay away from this book (I’m pretty sure it was her), and with this review on top of that, I’m glad I did. It’s too bad the author can’t go to China or Japan and tell them that they’re all the same and see what kind of reaction he gets from them.
Thank you for the review. I was super-excited about this one when I first heard about it. I’m kind of a sucker for a girl with a sword.
I really hesitated about commenting since I’ve only read the sample and am on the fence now. I can take the animangalization to a point, I suppose. You know, like how Kill Bill was a swashbuckling adventure that was trope-y and mish-mashy but very aware of the samurai/kung-fu revenge genre it was playing homage to….but this sounds like there’s a lot of appropriation and maybe not as cleverly aware? And geisha is not an interchangeable word for prostitute, concubine, or any number of positions women had in feudal times. I would think even a Japanimangalization would know that very, very basic notion. I’m so torn after reading this review and the Book Smugglers’ take as well as the sample. I do still hope that this means publishers are willing to take on more Asian-set novels though. I’d love to read more Asian steampunk and fantasy.
Thank you for a fabulous review! I was excited about this book as well, but am going to steer way clear of it now.
@Jeannie Lin: I talked about this with some friends of mine and we actually think a Japanese steampunk novel set during the Meiji era would not only be cool but make a lot of sense. Because the social upheaval and class conflict was so widespread at that time. Not that there wasn’t class conflict during other Japanese time periods but the social and class conflicts during, say, the Tokugawa period are of a different type. Not that any of this was even brought into play in Stormdancer. I’m still not even 100% sure which time period Stormdancer is supposed to be on but maybe I’m reading too deeply and assuming it was.
Speaking as one who doesn’t know better: I’m only about 5% into my kindle edition, so I’m not sure where that translates in this first 50-100 pages, but so far, without constantly being online I wouldn’t have a clue what most of the things in this book are. I guess I’m learning a lot, but it’d be nice if it was somehow incorporated into the story. I keep getting lost in it – and not in a good way – and can’t really figure out what the heck is going on. I’m ready to give up.
I admit to having a prejudice against novels with “strong female characters” written by men. Every time I try one, the “strong female character” turns out to be superficially kick-ass, but also irrational, slutty, oddly helpless (for such a bad-ass), and prone to wardrobe malfunctions.
I’ve been waiting for this book since Jane tweeted about it months ago and like you, Jia, was totally sucked in by the unique setting and interesting premise. Lucky for me, I kind of forgot about it until I started seeing reviews which are generally similar to yours (though you seem more informed regarding the cultural appropriation) so I’m going to pass. Lack of basic research is something I have little tolerance for.
BTW: “insectoid exoskeleton”? Bwahahahaha!!!
“Neither of these things are Japanese. They are Chinese, however, which makes things worse in my eyes because fiction, and in particular fantasy, has a long history of conflating various Asian cultures and viewing them as the same.”
“Asian women are often sexualized in media portrayals and seeing geisha pop up every five pages did not put me at ease.”
Wow. How did the publisher not catch these very things you’ve pointed out?
Also, it defeats the purpose/message to have a heroine who’s kick ass, but just about every other female is a stereotype. Personally, the whole “kick ass” female has become a trope imo. And on the cover, is that a slit in her pants, at the hip? WTH? So what’s she wearing as underwear? A thong? Sorry, but I notice stuff like this.
Thanks for the informative review.
Edited to add: Found an interview with the author regarding the setting being “inspired” by Japan, yet he goes into basing it on Shogunate Japan.
I too was very excited for this book–I’m excited for ANY novel that uses Asian influences because I’m so fascinated by the history of both China and Japan (and to an extent Korea, but I’m not very far along in that research). I received it in for review and began reading it right away, but had to stop about 25% of the way through because I thought it was the wrong book.
After the Smugglers review I realized I wasn’t crazy and handed it over to my Asian Studies major friends for them to have a laugh at…and then they handed it to their Japanese Culture Professor and now he’s using it as a way illustrate how to royally F**K UP in his class and earn a F.
This hits close to a lot of similar reviews on Goodreads. So I was surprised to see John Scalzi recommending this book. You would think that a professional would know better.
I’m so glad you reviewed this book. Yeah, you’re not the only one who thought the premise sounded good. I almost put it on mine and my husband’s reading list. I’m glad I waited to hear your opinion first.
It’s awesome to see issues like this addressed. Too often they’re ignored.
@Angela: So my doubts were proven correct. I’m all for using the source culture words and in fact, I do favor that in general but there has to be a balance. If the beginning weren’t so infodumpy, it wouldn’t be such a big issue.
@Lada: Ha, I’m glad someone appreciated that. But to be fair, that is what they are and what they look like.
I know, right?! I found that both really disturbing and, um, sort of sexy. I am not buying a Jia D reviewed book for just two words – but if I ever see that phrase as a title I’m all in.
@wikkidsexycool: Unfortunately, Western (by which I mean English-based) publishing tends to have a rather exoticized view of Asia. So the things I pointed out are actually commonly found in novels, fantasy or otherwise. People conflate Asian cultures all the time or assume all Asian cultures are like China and Japan. English narratives love to their delicate lotus blossom women from Asia or the lethal ninja women who can do the splits. It’s just that here, they’re all found in the same novel.
It is a rampant problem. This model ends up being the type of “Asian fantasy” they want because it taps into the widespread perspective of an exoticized JapanChinaAsia setting while other novels, which more accurate depict the cultures, end up being passed over because people think that’s “not right.”
As for what she’s wearing on the cover, I think it’s supposed to be a hakama. Because hakama do have that slit in the side. It’s just that it’s normally worn over a kimono so you don’t see skin. I’m guessing the cover artist modeled her look off of Soifong from Bleach who wears her pants in a similar way. In the manga anyway. I think in the anime, she wears something underneath.
@Michelle: Well, Patrick Rothfuss also blurbed this book. As we’ve seen, people get caught up in the idea and looking on Goodreads, there are a lot of positive reviews for this book. But I bet a lot of them either don’t know better with regards to the cultural research or haven’t noticed these unfortunate trends and depictions in publishing.
@joanne: Ha! I hope someone grants your wish some day.
(But, please, if you do grant this wish, make it less fail-y.)
I can take the animangalization to a point, I suppose.
I’m not sure whether to read that as “animanga” + “-ization” or as “anime” + “mangle” + “-ization”.
In this case, my money’s on the latter interpretation being the most apropos.
Ha! I guess a bit of both?
Check out Jay’s mini autobiography via http://bewitchedbookworms.com/2012/09/stormdancer-by-jay-kristoff-blog-tour-giveaway.html – interesting tidbit:
This might give some insight to him writing the “strong female protagonist” who really isn’t one. Or the engineering stereotypical “nice guy.” YMMV!
@RKB: To be quite blunt, I think the stereotypical Nice Guy syndrome is endemic in fantasy. I mentioned Patrick Rothfuss blurbed this book and no one will ever convince me that Kvothe is not a Nice Guy in how he approaches his relationship to Denna. So there you go.
@Janine: Is this the one we all urged on Jia? If it is, now I’m feeling guilty!
@Jayne: I took one for the team. I fulfilled my quota for this quarter.
DAMN IT ALL! Having grown up with a parents who are hardcore Japanophiles (I was being taken to Kurosawa film fests before I had any hope of reading the subtitles), and having my own serious love of the culture (took Japanese in college, also studied Japanese history, literature, and dance), I was REALLY looking forward this book. *grinds teeth*
If this review had indicated that the book had a shred of a redeeming cultural feature, I would have bought it, fast, at any price below $30.
PUBLISHERS, THAT IS HOW STARVED I AM FOR GOOD ASIAN-SET BOOKS.
Sorry for shouting, but this is a massive bummer.
@Jayne yes I practically begged her to read it. I was so excited for this book.
@Courtney Milan: books like this always remind me of a quote from an otherwise forgettable movie (but memorable if only for having Michael J Fox in it). The original subject of the quote was political — that people want leadership — but I’d say the popularity of this book, and the marketing push it’s getting, make the quote applicable here, too, with some slight adapting:
[Readers are] so thirsty for [this kind of story] they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.
There’s a whole lot of people out there drinking sand right now, with this book and a few others I can name, although this one must be one of the most egregious I’ve seen a in a long time. The problem isn’t just the appropriation. The problem is that when a book comes along that tries to do it right, how many readers are going to see the done-it-right as wrong, because they’ve talked themselves into believing all that sand was damn near the real thing, and can no longer recognize water?
That’s what infuriates me the most, really. It’s cultural appropriation, but there’s also such a butt-ton of privilege required to think you can write of someone else’s culture and do it with just an afternoon skimming Wiki. And then to actually boast about this total lack of research, in interviews? It’s like the author is trolling his own poor sand-eating audience.
It sounds like there’s some fetishing going on here that SERIOUSLY squicks me out. I was so looking forward to this book, I mean Non-Western fantasy? SO THERE! Steampunk? SO THERE! Bleh.
@Courtney Milan: Try CLOUD OF SPARROWS by Takashi Matsuoka. It’s one of the RARE books that actually get Japan right. And it’s only $7 from Amazon (Kindle).
I could have overlooked a number of these issues if the writing had been good or if the plot had drawn me in, but nope. It was so incredibly boring, I could not get past the first 50 pages. Count me in as another one suckered in by the gorgeous cover.
Totally different genre, but I’ve quite enjoyed the two urban fantasies by Cara d’Bastian, which are set in modern-day Singapore and Malaysia.
Caveat that they are rather short novels, and have more of a “serial story” feel than being complete in themselves, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the glimpse into the culture and ghost stories, and I like the voice of the protagonist.
Stormdancer I considered reading, but I couldn’t get past someone using “hai” and “-sama” wrong. Or, for that matter, that her family name is ‘Kitsune’. Even if she was descended from a Kitsune, it would be an odd thing to call herself, and disrespectful to use the name if she isn’t.
@Isobel Carr: If you studied Japanese in college, I definitely recommend avoiding this book. I’m certainly not fluent but the incorrect Japanese drove me nuts. People with more knowledge were really appalled, by all appearances.
@Nadia Lee: I second the rec for Cloud of Sparrows. That, and its sequel Autumn Bridge, are two of my favorite books. I think Autumn Bridge is a very beautiful story even if it has a very bittersweet ending.
@Andrea: Well, she does have a tattoo of Kyuubi on her arm…
*ROFL* Her kimono was riding up around her hips? She fights in a KIMONO? Didn’t he at least google pictures of kimono? The fact that girls in kimono take such short steps when walking is because a correctly tied kimono restricts your movement. That’s why fighters don’t wear kimonos, not even female shinobi.
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/05/nyregion/thecity/05kimo.html?_r=0 – For Students of Kimono Dressing, Wrestling with Silk.
Oh well, that sama misuse would have driven me up the wall as a subtitled anime fan. I thank you (and the Booksmugglers) for reading this and explaining the problems in detail so I don’t have to.
@Jia: Japanese steampunk novel in the Meiji? Cool idea, they could pay homage to the Sakura Taisen games and animes, because they’ve done exactly that very successfully, too. And while those are harem games, the girls are totally competent and the young man in question, Ichiro Ookami, is very respectful of that. No hentai bits there.
AND there’s the Takarazuka Revue aspect, total win. Here a fan has put all the game openings one after the other: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3otetBrSos – so you can see the mix. Game 4 and 5 take place in Paris and New York, respectively. And the New York on is definitely set later, before the depression, I’d say.
@Estara: I had the same thought. That, and “A samurai with green eyes?”
@LG: It’s how you indicate the samurai’s dreaminess, you see — by giving him a physical trait traditionally associated with white people.
@Jia: this green-eyed thing seems to be the new blue. Or the new pink. Or whatever was last season’s authorial version of the little black dress, the one thing all heroes require.
I mean, what weight does this uncommon feature (eye-color) have in the story? Are the eyes solely to justify the pretty girl being entranced? If so, that tells me that without that singular feature, the character is otherwise not worth noticing. She noticed his green eyes (the white person feature), instead of his charm, his smile, his intelligence, or his fine ass, all of which are universal potential for men all over the planet, independent of ethnicity. The basic message becomes: if you have white-person parts, you get noticed; the rest of the package is incidental.
@leela: As far as I can tell, the green eyes were the sole reason for Yukiko to be entranced by him and to remember him at the most inappropriate of times, such as when she’s about to get clobbered by multiple oni.
Thank you for this excellent review. The only thing I want to add is that pandas are from Tibet, China invaded Tibet and claimed them as Chinese, but they are not.
@HellyBelly: Thanks for the correction.
I don’t know about properly tied kimono as I’ve never worn one, but I know with a properly tied yukata (summer kimono), it’s not so much how it’s tied that restricts the walking to such short steps, but if you don’t take short steps, you risk becoming improper. And after walking for a while, the ties holding everything in place eventually start to loosen, so taking shorter steps will keep everything together longer.
Otherwise, yes, I had the same reaction upon reading that the kimono rode up to her hips. Fanboy fantasy right there.
Thanks for this review! It totally baffles me that so many people like this book, mostly because of the bad writing, because I know most people don’t notice culture-fail or gender-fail, but it’s always great to read reviews from people who do!
My issues with the female characters were slightly different. They’re eroticized, they’re largely defined by their relationships to men, there’s a blatant male gaze even when we’re supposed to be in Yukiko’s head, and they’re not convincingly female. But where were all these prostitutes and geisha? I will not read a book where the female characters are mostly prostitutes, so this is something I’m pretty aware of, but I didn’t notice it here. There were a couple of geisha in the background, but none of the important secondary characters–the shogun’s sister, her maid, the rebel woman, the father’s girlfriend–were sex workers of any sort.
Also, re: the father’s girlfriend, I didn’t see her portrayed as a homewrecker at all. Yes, she was sleeping with a married person, but people do that sometimes, and I didn’t think the book blamed her any more than him. What wrecked the family was the shogun’s having the wife murdered, not the husband’s adultery. The girlfriend seemed like a genuinely decent person to me, although totally flat and uninteresting, like everybody else in the book.
Other than that, I agree with all your criticisms, and I hope this book flops, because…. ugh.
@Emma: But see, you point to the important secondary characters. I don’t just look at those. I also look at the background characters who may not ever get a name or say a single word. If most of those poor nameless women in the background are geisha and prostitutes (and I’m not entirely convinced the author could tell the difference considering how geisha were portrayed), I think that says something as well. This impression is strongest in the first 50-100 pages.
Regarding your comment about a steampunk set in Meiji-era Japan…
I did try to write a Japanese steampunk set in pseudo-Meiji (though I’m not really touching the political/cultural shifts of the time because I’m too busy stealing plot points from the first Sino-Japanese war). Agents seem to like it, but they all want to see changes (three rewrite requests so far). I’d probably have better chances of selling it if my main character wasn’t so gender ambiguous, but we’ll see what happens. Maybe one day I too can get ripped to shreds by you. ;)
Your comment: “Even fangirl Japanese uses the -sama honorific correctly. And maybe this was the author trying to alter language to suit the novel’s setting but no, this is not how it’s done. The vocabulary abuse drove me up the wall. It seriously was like fingernails on a chalkboard.” was very similar to a comment on You’re Killing me: “Let’s start with my primary nails-on-a-chalkboard issue, the usage of the words “hai” and “sama”, shall we?” Coincidence? Highly unlikely. Plagiarism? The same author? You can still plagiarise yourself.
Hi there, don’t know if anyone is still around but I wanted to throw in my two cents.
Just superficially reading the book, I really did like it–loved Buruu, and I really did like Yukiko. I didn’t necessarily get the impression the narrative agreed with Kin re “nice-guy” tropes, if only because by the point everything came out into the open everyone had much bigger things to worry about.
Upon reading about the lack of research and cultural appropriation bits, however, I’m pretty annoyed. I speak a little bit of Japanese, and the parts that I noticed being weird apparently fell under suspension of disbelief for me, but it really /sucks/ that the person didn’t do their research.
Like @Estara, I’d love a steampunk set in Meiji era (Sakura Taisen is the /best thing ever/, although it took a while for it to stop being creepy with its young characters–Iris and Coquelicot were badly handled, Rika was good) and will await the day when that novel is written. Well, I guess there are Japanese ST novels, but…