A japanese steampunk novel involving mythical creatures, a young girl with a sword, and skyships throughout the sky? Need I say more? Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer is a thrill of a ride. While this is his first novel, he manages to capture a world consisting of an intriguing mix of technology and mythology. And having the setting in Japan is was not a bad decision. It feels like a scene from the movie SuckerPunch.
Firstly, the setting: the novel features a shogunate in the fictional Isles of Shima that borrow a lot of culture from Japan, but I also noticed a few things that were Chinese. I’m not sure if this was intentional but it feels a little off. Kristoff also throws a lot of Japanese terms into his writing and, thankfully, includes a glossary at the back. This really gives it a lot of taste but like I mentioned, it feels weird coming across Chinese influences also. The fact that mythical creatures existed but became extinct because of the pollution from the steampunk machines adds a layer of realism that reflects our own. Yet these extinct animals are still semi-present in the novel and thus provides a taste of fantasy along with the sci-fi. Overall its an interesting depiction of a Japan-like nation with mythical creatures and in a steampunk setting. Plus a samurai with power armor and a chainsaw katana is a pretty sweet idea.
The plot is where I find some faults though. While Kristoff does a good job introducing the setting and characters, the story takes some time to actually get started, giving the novel a slow pace. Much to the dismay of the protagonist, the Shogun decides that he wants a griffin and sends his beast tamer after it. Failure means death. And seeing that griffins are supposed to be extinct, well, you can see why the crew sent after it is worried. With this adventure set up, we are given a journey into the Shima Isles. This is all good except things end up being too predictable. Even the romantic subplot has no surprises: handsome bad boy disappoints and it is the reliable good friend who is always there when needed most.
The characters are interesting and entertaining yet also a bit generic. Masaru, shogun’s beast tamer and leader of the crew sent after the griffin, is presented to us as a drunkard getting into a brawl in a gambling den, with his loyal daughter Yukiko arriving to fetch him. This dysfunctional father figure is something out of an anime. The main protagonist Yukiko, while portrayed as a strong, independent young girl, has that whole infatuation for the handsome bad boy we mostly associate with young, naive girls. Aside from her, I noticed most women were prostitutes or some other stereotypical role. Even our strong Yukiko has a moment of vulnerability where she is peeped on. This really left a sour taste in my mouth. Then again, it reminded me of all the anime I watched and is probably a good reflection of Japanese pop culture.
While there were things that made me think Kristoff was just some anime lover who wrote a novel, the whole thing together ties up nicely. The story progresses, albeit slowly and predictably in some places, into a solid narration of this entertaining journey. The end really does make me want to read the sequel of this upcoming trilogy. The characters do have a certain memorable hold despite being characters straight out of anime. Maybe that’s a plus and not a flaw. But the world: mythical creatures that aren’t totally extinct, samurai with crazy steampunk armor and weapons, skyships that run on lotus fuel, a shogun bent on conquest and glory. If this doesn’t get anyone hooked on steampunk, I don’t know what will.