Monday, November 26, 2012

STORMDANCER


Review of STORMDANCER by JAY KRISTOFF
(first in THE LOTUS WAR series, based on a review copy)

If you're looking for unique fantasy, behold STORMDANCER! There's a quote on the cover of this book from Patrick Rothfuss: "What’s that? You say you’ve got a Japanese steampunk novel with mythic creatures, civil unrest, and a strong female protagonist? I’m afraid I missed everything you said after ‘Japanese steampunk.’ That’s all I really needed to hear.” Well, I was won over even more easily; Kristoff had me at “Japanese.” It took me a few chapters before I felt in synch with the voice (which is doubtless distinctive, a virtue or flaw depending on whether or not it resonates with you), but then the story absorbed me and I loved it even more with each new chapter and especially after the climatic, high-stakes ending.

Ah, the Japanese elements. I grappled at length about how and where to address this aspect of the book in my review. STORMDANCER has been harshly critiqued of late for its lack of accuracy and while I adored this book, I wouldn't feel right omitting mention of this controversy. First, let me step back and share my own background. I studied the Japanese language formally for five years with two different senseis (teachers). I've been to Japan for a short three-week exchange and have hosted Japanese exchange students myself. In summary, I'm no expert and though I continue studying the language, culture, and history of Japan on my own, I'm far from fluent in any of the three. Still I knew enough to pick up on instances in which something in the book isn't quite right. I think a quote from the author in this interview summarizes this debate, though: "If you can wrap your head around the idea Shima and Japan might look a lot alike, but aren't the same place, you'll have fun." This book is not set in Japan. Japan served as influence for a fictional land, Shima. Consider medieval fiction: often terribly inaccurate with just enough correct to give a flavor of the time period. Medieval-esque, I like to say. Well, STORMDANCER is Japanese-esque. Of course, the book's being aggressively marketed as a Japanese fantasy, so that's a huge part of why people are disappointed when they realize it's more like a parallel Japan. If it will bother you when a Japanese word is misused or you otherwise catch details that feel inauthentic by a Japanese measure, then you probably won't like this book. If you can set that aside and hop on board with the idea of a story influenced by a particular culture without being a mirror, there is an incredible story here.

Okay, disclaimer behind us. Let’s move forward. I adored this book. I don't even know where to begin, because so many aspects appealed to me that my list will surely forgot some. Despite the author's liberties with accuracy, I treasured a story influenced by Japanese culture when so much fiction feels so similar. I also liked the fantasy's focus on the griffin - or thunder tiger - because we see far fewer griffins these days than, say, vampires, zombies, dragons, fairies, etc. Not that I don't love dragons and fairies, but I'm always pleased to find less commonly used mythological beasts making appearances. The heroine - along with about everyone else - proves an intriguing, complex character. Her developing relationship with said griffin becomes the story's spine and Kristoff handled the shift in their relationship perfectly. This book made me laugh...hard...many, many times. It didn't make me cry, but certain parts did lead to a physical ache in my chest. The story has it all: family complications, a whiff of romance that doesn't steal focus, unexpected alliances, betrayals, political intrigue, folklore and mythology, passionate friendships, blood-chilling villains. Note: this isn't an all-inclusive list.

In particular, I want to single out what I consider two of STORMDANCER's greatest strengths: the writing and the end. If someone described the writing to me, I would be certain I would hate it. STORMDANCER has one of those grammatically rebellious writing styles that normally annoys me, except Kristoff pieces his words and sentences (and fragments) together so that everything feels right and I found myself fawning over specific word choices or grammatically-incorrect-but-emotionally-perfect sentence structures. As the saying goes, "The rules are meant to be broken." That's no excuse to break them without reason or a defense of poor writing, but if you can break the rules for the better, go for it.

As for the end, the story has that perfect build topped off by an unpredictable, nail-biting climax that, mapped out, would contain a few peaks and dips rather than one steady rise and fall. One dramatic line hit me as slightly cheesy (you can probably guess what one after reading the book), but that's really my only single complaint about the end whereas I have numerous aspects that I admired, which I won't list only to avoid spoilers.

If you're looking for a fresh and promising fantasy epic, STORMDANCER might just be the book for which you've been waiting.

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