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?
You can read an excerpt here.
If Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan and Nahoko Uehashi’s Moribito had a love child, this book would be it. A feisty mash-up of griffins and industrialization, of demons and chainsaw katanas, of pollution and magic, Stormdancer is pure book candy for any martial arts movie/anime loving fan such as myself.
Similar to Cindy Pon, whose fantasy series was inspired by ancient China, Kristoff clearly has drawn inspiration for his series from feudal Japan, as his story includes both creatures from Japanese mythology and a society based on Bushido. I really, really enjoyed how Stormdancer mixed the recognizable with the wildly original, somehow managing to mash-up Japanese-style martial culture, steampunk aesthetics, and an industrial wasteland. So while Kristoff does include such classic icongraphy as airships and pollution-fueled smog in his story, they exist side-by side with chainsaw katanas, full-suited brassworks (think early deep-sea divers), mythical monsters, and a military-industrial complex built around a poisonous flower whose byproduct is destroying the country. All in all it made for a vital, vibrant landscape that was downright fascinating to explore.
Now I did think this story started off a little choppy, but I was so fascinated by the vivid setting that I was perfectly willing to hang in, and once Yukiko and her father set off on their griffin hunt, I was fully involved. And yes, this book definitely does have a bit of a comic/manga feel, in how quickly it moves and in how its character development stays fairly broad, but it’s also just good old fashioned action-serial type fun. Yukiko makes for a solid, sympathetic heroine who is believably tough yet still true to her age, and I very much enjoyed the gradual reveals of her family history, particularly in how it all explained her thorny relationship with her father. And honestly, who can resist the age old tale of a girl and her _____, be it dog, horse, or griffin? Plus a best friend who can fly is just a kid’s dream come true, and it hit my 12 year old self dead on – and as an added bonus, the romantic aspects of this story never once overpowered that alluring core.
On top of which, can I just say how much I absolutely loved this story for nakedly and pointedly illustrating the daily effects of living in a world wrecked by pollution. From the visceral impact of watching people choke to death on the noxious Lotus fumes, to the cold reality of the political underpinnings of the ecological disaster, where those in power blatantly refuse to give up the source of their influence, even if that technology destroys the very world (and actually the Lotus Guild kind of reminded me of the East India Trading Company, in a way) – oh, it was wonderful, not to mention timely. So yes, it was hardly subtle storytelling, but I loved it nonetheless.
And now I should probably mention the complaints that have been swirling around the internet about the cultural inaccuracies in this book. Honestly, I’m in no position to judge – my knowledge of Japanese culture stems strictly from a steady diet of Asian cinema, and somehow I doubt Azumi or Shinobi: Heart Under Blade or 13 Assassins or Battle Royale are particular accurate sources by which to judge – but in my case, anyway, I didn’t bump on anything, and to be frank I never once took the story seriously, culturally speaking. Now of course I can understand why people are annoyed by mistakes in language and honorifics, but hey, Japanese is not an easy language - as the Japanese/American lady I work with vehemently attests – and more importantly, I don’t believe the intent was to knock Japanese culture in any way. If anything, this book is a fanboy love letter to manga and samurai movies – clearly Kristoff is a huge Japanophile, and he’s probably watched every Kurosawa movie five times over – and at the end of the day, I think this is a story that will draw people to learn more about Japanese history and culture, and in my book that lands it firmly in the positive column, cultural inaccuracies notwithstanding. So no, I don’t doubt that people far more knowledgeable than I have reasons to be annoyed – as many were with the movie Inglorious Basterds – but frankly, I totally failed to be offended by either.
So in the end, I enjoyed the heck out of this fun, rousing tale of Japanese flavored steampunk adventure – a girl and her gryphon story meets myth, legend and ironworks – and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Byrt Grade: A
As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…
The first thing that came to my mind after finishing Stormdancer was the very eloquent: WHOA! The second more composed chain of thought was something along the lines of: Why yes, that *was* just as badass as its cover suggested.
The innovative setting, fast-moving plot, vivid descriptions, and thrilling action scenes make this a refreshing addition to the steampunk canon.
Soars higher than the arashitora Kristoff writes about; superb.