Sunday, December 16, 2012

Review: STORMDANCER by Jay Kristoff

Griffins are supposed to be extinct. So when Yukiko and her warrior father Masaru are sent to capture one for the Shogun, they fear that their lives are over. Everyone knows what happens to those who fail him, no matter how hopeless the task.

But the mission proves far less impossible, and far more deadly, than anyone expects – and soon Yukiko finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in her country's last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled griffin for company. But trapped together in the forest, Yukiko and Buruu soon discover a friendship that neither of them expected.

Meanwhile, the country around them verges on the brink of collapse. A toxic fuel is slowly choking the land; the omnipotent, machine-powered Lotus Guild is publicly burning those they deem Impure; and the Shogun cares about nothing but his own dominion. Yukiko has always been uneasy in the shadow of power, when she learns the awful truth of what the Shogun has done, both to her country and to her own family she's determined to do something about it.

Returning to the city, Yukiko and Buruu plan to make the Shogun pay for his crimes – but what can one girl and a flightless griffin do against the might of an empire?
Waaaay back in September, I highlighted Stormdancer in a Wishlist Wednesday post. Then reviews started trickling - and then pouring - in, uniformly laudatory and even fangirlish. And yet did I get to read it? Noooo, because my store doesn't carry it!

Finally, a copy came in at the library and I snapped it up. That was four weeks ago. For two weeks, Stormdancer stayed on the floor next to my bed, then it took me almost two more weeks to finish reading it. And you know what? I'm glad. Jay Kristoff's book is a hefty masterpiece that should NOT be rushed. Zip through your reading, and you'll miss a lot. Heck, I know I missed stuff, and taking two weeks to read a book is glacially slow for me.

I'll admit, I almost didn't make it through. When the story opens, the heroine Yukiko is running for her life from some monstrous demon things called oni. It's fast-paced, exhilarating, and made me pump my fist like a frat boy. But then Mr. Kristoff bumps the narrative back two weeks so we can watch as the shogun orders the hunt for the fabled arashitora or "thunder-tiger." Then, just as quickly, we're pushed to Yukiko's father and then back to Yukiko herself.

I was displeased. I didn't want a multi-narrative story. I wanted Yukiko's tale and no one else's. Worse, Mr. Kristoff's world is very authentic and therefore very confusing initially. Like a tourist stepping foot in a new country, I found myself reeling, buffeted on all sides by strange common nouns such as "kouka," "yakuza," "hakama," "obi," "tabi," etc. They were words that meant nothing to me, flitting around my eyes like pesky gnats. I felt lost and overwhelmed by the sheer foreignness of it all.

If you should pick up Stormdancer and find yourself lost in the kudzu of shifting narratives and unfamiliar words, don't fret. I made it, and you can, too. Go slowly, take deep breaths, and relax. Once you've settled into your new home, you'll find that Mr. Kristoff has created a fantastic world populated with some of the more memorable characters I've ever read.

Yukiko's lands are dying. Everything in the pseudo-Japanese steampunk society is powered by a plant called the blood lotus. The lotus powers the ships and is the key ingredient in nearly every industry on the isles. But lotus comes at a high price. It kills the fields where it is grown, scorching the soil. The fumes from the plants poison the air so that everyone must wear rebreathers to filter out toxins and goggles to block out the damaging rays of the blood-red sun. The animals died long ago. The people die more slowly, choked by black lung plague, lulled by intoxicating lotus fumes, or starved by crushing poverty.

Yukiko, in a small way, feels these injustices. She despises the shogun for making her father move to the capital city and away from her mountain home. She fears the Lotus Guildsmen who raise the lotus and keep the populace in check by destroying those who are deemed Impure. And yet she does nothing. What can she do? She is only a girl. So she hides her own impurities, keeps her head down, and shuffles on.

But then Yukiko meets the arashitora, the thunder-tiger she names Buruu, and everything changes.

I loved Yukiko and Buruu. Yukiko is fiery, clever, and often wrong. She feels deeply and is probably one of the more impressively fierce female protagonists I've ever had the pleasure to meet. Yukiko is also blessed with the ability to reach into the minds of animals. Through her, we are able to meet Buruu, the growling, majestic thunder-tiger. Stranded by a terrible storm and separated from the rest of the hunting party, Yukiko and Buruu form a fragile truce to survive the demon-riddled forest.

Unlike most animal buddy stories, Buruu doesn't merely distrust humans. He despises them. He calls them monkeys, pests, and despoilers. Yukiko's kind have ruined the land, plucked him from the skies, and clipped his wings. He even tries to kill Yukiko before reluctantly saving her from the oni. Distinctly unhuman, Buruu is a fully realized character who delighted me with his ferocity, his wit, his valor, and even his humor. (Page 216 made me cackle out loud.)

Buruu and his kind are part of the larger mythology that Mr. Kristoff weaves through the story. Yukiko and her father both tell stories within the narrative, and these tales were my entry into the world that previously baffled me. Some, such as the story of the great Stormdancers, were (as far as I could tell) unique to Yukiko's world, while others were reimagined versions of familiar Greco-Roman myths. All of them were beautiful.

Once the myths allowed me to gain footing, my initial culture shock quickly wore off and morphed into amazed curiosity as the parallels between our world and Yukiko's became more apparent. The blood lotus, for instance, reminded me strongly of the opium that plagued 19th century China. Of course, it's not merely enough for Mr. Kristoff to riff of history; instead, he takes the base of something familiar and continually layers on twist after horrifying twist. Let me just warn you all now, this lotus stuff is messed up.

Another parallel that was woven throughout the entire novel is the gaijin. In Yukiko's world, the gaijin are the foreigners. Barbaric and savage, their skin color and oddly shaped eyes set them apart from the shogun's people. They live across the sea in a land begging to be tamed. In fact, in the middle of the narrative explaining the current war against the gaijin, it's mentioned that the gaijin need to simply give in and let themselves "be civilized." Oh, did I mention that the gaijin are also called "round-eyes"? As someone who intellectually understands racism, it was a jolt for me to be able to truly feel it for the first time. The whole underlying thread was brilliant, and I have a feeling the gaijin will have a role to play in the next book.

I regret for possibly the first time ever that I've graduated and therefore no longer need to write analytical essays. As I said previously, Stormdancer is a tale that should be read slowly, if only so all the different threads can be unpacked. Mr. Kristoff deals with family, forgiveness, sacrificing the one for the sake of the whole, individuality and community, vengeance, and the high cost of revenge. Amid all of the deeper concerns are surface twists that will delight the reader. I can't tell you the last time I read a book that seemingly dealt me the foul hand of insta-love AND a love triangle only to subvert both tropes by the end.

Best of all is that while Stormdancer wrestles with loss and love, friendship and family, all displayed by a dazzlingly large cast, it lets each character have his or her moment to shine. I still can't spell each character's name without consulting my notes, but I know each of them the moment they reappear on the page. From the smallest beggar girl to the mightiest shogun, each character is given a life with all its heartaches and triumphs.

I look forward to Stormdancer's sequel, not merely to read the continuation of Yukiko's story, but to read the continuation of everyone's story and to enter Mr. Kristoff's vibrant world once more. Also, I think I may need to visit Japan now.

Points Added For: Excellent world-building, a great premise and execution, Yukiko and Buruu's friendship, twists, the blood lotus, the mythology, all of the many characters that I didn't have space to mention. (You're my guy, Kin!)

Points Subtracted For: Unnecessary language, confusing me in the beginning, making me cry. (We all know this is actually a sign of good writing, but crying makes me cranky.)

Good For Fans Of: Fresh dystopians, pseudo-Japanese culture, vivid mythology, kick-butt heroines.

Notes For Parents: Language, drug use, nudity via the viewpoint of a peeping Tom, incest, fade-to-black sex, genocide, murder, animal death, violence, dismemberment (in a fight scene).

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