Monday, June 29, 2015

REVIEW: STORMDANCER (THE LOTUS WAR BOOK 1)

INTRODUCTION
I'm always a sucker for a good fantasy novel. As I get older and busier, I find I have less and less time for prolonged fantasy books so I tend to try and choose as wisely as possible when it comes to selecting the longer works of fiction that I do read. Jay Kristoff's STORMDANCER (The Lotus War Book One) is a book that comes passionately recommended by some and fiercely chastised by others. While I normally don't see such a divide in opinions and was a little skeptical about this book for that reason, it sounded like everything I wanted in this type of plot-line, plus upon sampling some of the author's writing I knew this had to be at least a little good.

HOW I CAME UPON IT
In an effort to get my own book into the hands of people who enjoy reading and reviewing books, I started following the booktubing community on YouTube. This is a group of vloggers that makes videos about books, sometimes they deliver video reviews and other times they will just talk about bookish things. These channels are probably a bit of a hit or a miss for most people, but what's nice is that all of these vloggers are unique from one another and will often read different sorts of books even if they tend to pick from the same genres. Now I'm not the sort of author that just sends a review request, I actually check out the channels of booktubers that I ask to review my book and become a fan of them before sending my request. While most tend to ignore my messages, I normally already like their channel and continue to watch their videos since I'm as avid a reader as I am a writer. One book that several different people mentioned, was Jay Kristoff's STORMDANCER which is book 1 in the Lotus War trilogy. From everything these reviewers said about the book, it sounded like something that I would really enjoy.

HOW I RATED IT

 5/5 Every part of this adventure was filled with intrigue, intelligent thought, and aching emotion. I haven't indulged in epic fantasy quite this good in a very long time. Kristoff has some really interesting quirks in his writing that are a bit of a love it or hate it kind of deal, but I fall on the side of love and couldn't have been more engaged in a cast of characters and the troubled world that they reside in.

THINGS FROM JAPAN
Let's get this out of the way right now, because this is a point of immense praise and bitter criticism in other reviews that I have read. There are some that love the Japanese components and others who claim that they feel forced and fail to be a true representation of traditional Japan.

I openly admit that going into this, I had NO expectation that this would be at all historically or even culturally accurate in terms of what feudal Japan was or was not like. Jay Kristoff is about as white of a name as you could possibly ever hope to find so any that came in with the expectation of this being a true alternate Japanese history piece came in with a misguided idea of what they were getting into (either that or Mr. Kristoff's marketing team REALLY dropped the ball in how they hyped this up). This is Shima, not Japan and while the cultural similarities are absolutely present, this world is as much like Japan as Middle Earth is like Europe - close, but not meant to be an exact match. I never once got the feeling that the author meant to convey any sort of factual information about this country, but I did sense that this is a man who has a lot of respect and admiration for Japanese culture. Other than that, I didn't necessarily feel like Kristoff has that much more actual knowledge of the country than an avid anime fan might posses. The Japanese elements are far more of a backdrop for what ultimately feels like a microcosm of humanity as a whole.

What does come through in the work are the sumptuous pieces of Japanese imagery. From azalea trees to jagged mountain ranges, and bustling cities, this book is brimming with some of the most beautiful and intriguing things from Japan. Then there is the fashion, weaponry, and language. Many of these things are even called by their Japanese names. This could be both a good and a bad thing. It is bad because there is a TON of foreign words thrown at readers all at once. I'm all for expanding my vocabulary, but the extent to which these words are used in the earlier chapters did get overwhelming. Thankfully, the words are somewhat discernible within the context that they are used and there is a fully detailed glossary to be found in the back of the book. These words are also used often enough where I eventually started to read them as naturally as if they were from the English language. All and all the Japanese elements didn't make me feel like an expert in their history and culture, but they did provide an exquisite flavor to a genre that is predominantly saturated with white people who speak with vaguely British affects (not that I don't love that too, but a bit of variety is always nice).

CHARACTERS
Once you can get past the names of these characters, there is a staggeringly large and unnervingly compelling cast of individuals that inhabit the pages of this tale. There were characters I loved and characters I loved to hate. It all centers around our young heroine, Yukiko. I'll admit that she was a character I was a bit nervous about because these "strong female characters" tend to get a lot of hype and often times disappoint me, especially when they are written by a male author. I find that too often, these ladies so focused on being tough and standing up with the guys that the celebration of their womanhood is entirely forgotten. This is not the case with Yukiko. She's not a strong female character, she's just a strong character, period. Yukiko has lived a life of pain and loss, a life that has hardened her, but also left her a little broken. I found her character to be a really interesting blend of cynical and hopeful in a way that felt truly authentic to what being a teenager is really like, nevermind being a teenager in a polluted and dying world. She's as strong of a protagonist as I could ever ask for. She's beautifully flawed and remarkably gifted, especially since she has a gift known as the kenning, which is essentially a psychic ability that allows her to mentally communicate with animals among performing other impressive feats.

Then there's the crew we meet around her. From her lotus-addicted father and the brutish, but loyal Arkihito to the lethally beautiful yet tender Kasumi, the characters in this story are varied from the beginning and only get more interesting from there. The ambitious Captain Yagamata, the wicked Yorimoto, handsome Hiro, and strange Kin among others round out the cast and make this world feel like a living, breathing space. Each have their own personality traits, backstory, and many will suffer tragedies as the story rolls onward. Most of these characters have been indoctrinated into one manner of thinking or another and it was really interesting to see two characters from different factions interact with one another. The world they live in is one of corruption and wickedness and this really shows through in how these people communicate with one another. The angst always felt authentic and relatable which made the moments of compassion and understanding all the more rewarding. Perhaps the best character of all is the Arashitora or Lightning Tiger (essentially a griffon but with tiger parts instead of lion parts). While I'd like to go more into the role that this beast has to play in the story, it would be very difficult to do so without delving into spoilers. All that can safely be said is that he is a pivotal part of the plot and one of my favorite characters to ever grace the pages of modern literature.

WORLD/SETTING
While I know what a lot of people get really excited about in a fantasy novel is the characters, what really sells me on this genre is a compelling world. STORMDANCER has by far one of the most grief-stricken and smolderingly engaging story-spaces that I have ever visited as a reader. The more I learned about the world and all its conflicting factions, the more I wanted to know. The political engagements in these lands are complex and dangerous. Each party has it's own agenda yet all must bow to the will of the Shogun. It's a devious and tense system that only gets better with time. Even on a superficial level, the world is immediately gripping. Before I understood any of the intricacies, I saw a world as polluted with chi ash as with sorrow. This is a world of suffering and hardship where an elite few revel in their wealth and leave little for everyone else. This might sound like a common fantasy trope, but it is presented in a really interesting way herer. It is also a stark reminder that in so many cases, the ones who hold leadership over others often do not have their people's best interests in mind. I think this is a continued theme in fantasy, because it is also something that we must face off against in our own realities. It might be our peers, a manager at work, or even our own politicians and political leaders. Shima deals with this fear and frustration in a very extreme setting. The greed of the Shogun has torn the land apart with war and positioned the skies with the chi which is what the people call their power source.

Chi is burned in order to fuel all of the steampunk contraptions that buzz around. Mechanized suits, chainsaw katanas, and even glorious airships all fill this world and help further distinguish this place as a very unique setting, even within the fantasy genre. It all comes from the lotus plant which is grown and harvested by a faction known as the Guild. In addition to a fuel source, the parts of the plant are used in other parts of Shiman life, namely as an opiate of choice for several characters. As you might have guessed, both the plant and the Guild that grows it have some dark secrets that many people in this world are blind to. It is an unsettling thing to see the more beautiful elements marred by the stain of the chi and points where readers are brought to lands not yet tainted only make the pollution that much more painful to read about.

Then there is all the dark mythology that fleshes out the world and its people that much more. The gods play a huge role in how the characters behave and help define what it is they believe in. While it is not clear as to whether or not these beings are real - and if so, in what capacity - they are a delightfully intriguing aspect of the story's overall lore. The little excerpts quoted from a fictitious text also hint at possible plot points to be addressed in the later books in this trilogy.

This book does an absolutely remarkable job of showing readers as much of the world as it possibly can without ever feeling rushed. Dingy cities, peaceful woodland marshes, fierce wilderness climates, majestic airships, and sparkling palaces are just hints at some of the places that readers will be taken to. It's a world worth exploring and one that I certainly will not easily forget.

PLOT/TONE
A lot of what marks this plot is the people and places that it involves. The story itself goes through several phases which are marked as different sections within the book. While I won't discuss what any of them entail, it's far from a spoiler to say that at the heart of each of these story beats is the individual heartache that each of the characters feels coupled with their determination to survive and perhaps rise above their dire circumstances. Bits of Yukiko's past are divulged gradually as the story moves forward and connections can be found between many people that she comes across. Kristoff was smart to make her father, Mesaru, such a prominent and well known figure within the world because this made a lot of the more convenient coincidences feel way more plausible and even sincere. This is a world filled with secrets and suffering that is not openly talked about. Throughout the duration of Yukiko's odyssey, I could not help but feel an overwhelming sense of gravity while reading. This is the kind of tale that makes you feel more grateful for the little joys that surround you in life and makes you want to hold the ones that are dear to you. Life in Shima is even more imperfect than life in the real world and it is even more fleeting. Be prepared to feel genuine loss and heartbreak at every turn and general rushes of emotion all around.

What is perhaps the most unique and potentially the most enjoyably aspect of this novel is the author's style. Kristoff writes in a sharp and often abrupt tone of voice with a choppy sentence structure that I felt really suited the story, but others may not be thrilled about. It's one of the riskier elements in my opinion and an aspect of the adventure that readers are either going to be in love with or really turned off by. It's a stern and sometimes irreverent tone of voice that conveys sarcastic humor as often as it does raw bitterness. There is also a vaguely cartoonish feel to the writing which feels weird to say, but it is undeniably there. This isn't at all a bad thing, there's just a very distinct stylization to the descriptions that feel a bit larger than life.

CONCLUSION
The best advice I could give on this is to simply give it a try. Pick a copy up off the shelves at the bookstore or download the Amazon sample for your eReader and see if Kristoff's style is one that you think you might enjoy. The world and it's characters are not to be passed by lightly because they have an awful lot to offer. Don't come in expecting some kind of alternate history story, but instead prepare yourself for one of the most flavorful epics you have probably read in a long time. I now consider myself a huge fan of this author's work and fully intend to see this series through to its conclusion.

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