Stormdancer: The Lotus War Book One
by Jay Kristoff
Published by Thomas Dunne Books
4 Out of 5 StarsAnd now, the book genre I did not know I had been waiting my whole life to read: Japanese steampunk. Oh, hell yes.
Set in an alternate feudal Japan where a crumbling empire is teetering on the brink of collapse due to its dependence on the blood lotus (a plant that powers their machines, drugs their populace, and is rapidly destroying their land while it pollutes a sky that has turned red from its toxins), Yukiko is a member of the Fox Clan. Her father, the imperial hunter, is given an impossible task--to catch an extinct griffin and return it to the power crazed Shogun. When the quest proves successful, Yukiko uses her secret gift, the Keening, to probe the mind of the griffin only to find the animal possesses a human like consciousness and intelligence. The Keening is a gift for which Yukiko could be killed if it's discovered by the religious zealots known as The Guild, mechanized men who keep the blood lotus blooming and wield the true power of the Shogun's empire. As her mind becomes increasingly intertwined with that of the griffin, Yukiko begins to question the rigid class system and the reliance upon a power source that is so clearly destroying the environment and the minds of the populace.
During the first 40 pages or so, I was settling in to truly dislike the book. I mean, it's got some problems: some purple prose here and there, a bit of melodrama, a monster that seems a little too easily tamed, and some seriously anachronistic language (I was ready to bail when a poster in the beginning encourages people to "be all that you can be"). At times, it also seems as though the author is trying too hard to convince us that he knows Japanese history and culture (seppuku is mentioned umpteen times--yes, we get it, you know what seppuku is; move on). The environmental theme also bothered me in the beginning; the blood lotus as a stand-in for big oil is pretty transparent. I can attribute my initial reaction to the fear that the core of the book was simply going to be a didactic environmental message and the fantasy elements were simply a veneer for an agenda. Once I realized the environmental message was taking absolutely nothing away from the world-building, I embraced it. (By the way, I have nothing against such messages and, in fact, whole-heartedly agree with them; I just prefer them in non-fiction form.)
However, there's also a lot that's right: 1984-esque overtones, an inventive world, Iron Samurai, air ships powered by the blood lotus, Japanese mythology, and, my favorite, the Keening that allows you to witness Yukiko and the griffin become of one mind (this also helps offset the seemingly impossible ease with which Yukiko tames the beast; in fact, she becomes more aggressive and animalistic in her responses as the griffin engages in more complex thought and emotion). Also, I look forward to Kristoff exploring the framework of The Guild in future novels as they're only introduced here and, as a secret sect, offer many possibilities as antagonists in future novels.
All in all, this is an impressive debut and I'm sure that the series will only get better. I'll definitely be on the lookout for book 2.