Maybe closer to 3.5 stars, because the historic inaccuracies and confusion of Japanese and Chinese culture are extremely problematic, but a really great main character and a very strong end. Review to come.
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It’s not often that a steamfantasty set anywhere other than Industrial Revolution London comes along, but Jay Kristoff has stepped out of the box with the story of Yukiko, a sixteen year old girl in a feudal-esque Japan-inspired world where griffins, demons, and all manner of mystical creatures have died out. That is, until the Shogun dreams of a thunder-tiger and sends our heroine, along with her dad, his girlfriend, and his heavy, to capture him a mythological beast. And that’s when everything goes, (even further,) to hell.
Picking a score for this book is extremely hard. I liked the plotline and the main characters, Yukiko and Buruu. In fact, I really liked most of the characters. I liked Aisha and Michi and their alternate view of female strength. I liked Kin, a character made of contradictions. I didn’t like Hiro, but are we even supposed to like that cardboard cutout? And so, I spent the entire book utterly torn between enjoying Yukiko’s growth and strength and being horrified at some of the problems I’ve detailed a little later on.
Again, I thought Yukiko was awesome and Burruu, the best. Every scene with them together made it very hard for me to stay mad at the book. I thought Kristoff did a really good job of exploring their growing bond and how they temper and change each other. I loved the scenes at the palace and the final battles. I loved the flashbacks to Yukiko’s childhood and the reveal of her talent. I thought the ending was phenomenally done, with a scene I’m not ashamed to say made me emotional. So it’s with definite sadness that I say, it’s all marred by the fact that the book is racist, sexist, and inexpertly written. I don’t think it’s malicious, but it’s definitely problematic.
It’s poorly researched, with modern loanwords like salarimen between Edo period-inspired samurais and Chinese phrases and bows. The fact that the author said in an interview that his research consists of manga and wikipedia is readily apparent. (Source.) There’s a lot of leeway to be given in alternate history/steampunk stories, but especially given the way Westerners invalidate East Asia’s culture by confusing China and Japan’s, (and Korea and Thailand and Lao’s...) histories, it’s impossible for me to ignore the racist implications.
The author’s descriptions of the female characters are almost fetish-y, emphasising their “exoticness” in descriptions of their “hooded, almond-shaped” eyes and “midnight-black [hair] against pale, smooth skin”. It’s never more apparent than the awful bath scene. Not content to just be a recreation of an 80’s teen farce, it takes an otherwise strong character, removes all of her agency, and actually shifts the narration to a man literally gazing on her body via peep hole. It’s like if Porky’s was actually about the girls in the shower trying to get into ivy-league colleges, only to keep the famous peeping scene exactly as filmed.
The author gets stuck on a turn of phrase. “Blue-black smoke” is used four times in the first ten pages and twenty-one times over the entirety of the novel. Likewise, “aiya”, which isn’t even Japanese, is used thirteen times and there are twenty-three covered-fist bows. (Again, that’s associated with Chinese martial arts, not Japanese.)
It’s okay to like problematic books, but you have to acknowledge where they go wrong. I like Stormdancer. I’m not saying you can’t enjoy it, too. I’m very interested in continuing the adventures of the Arashi-no-ko and her brother. I’m just hopeful that by the time I get to Kinslayer, Kristoff has worked out some of his debut kinks. And invested in a history textbook.