REVIEW: KINSLAYER (THE LOTUS WAR BOOK 2)
The Lotus must burn...
Bloodier and more explicit than the first entry into this trilogy, KINSLAYER delivers on a dark, epic fantasy adventure that fumbles around slightly before picking up steam in it's third and final act.
Although I loved the first part of the trilogy, a meandering plot, unnecessarily gruesome moments, and perhaps a maturity in my own social awareness have dampened what I still find to be a really enjoyable story with an engaging cast of core characters.
The way that this dystopian society is (very) loosely based around Japan has been a polarizing factor for many readers. For clarity, the setting is actually a fictitious country called Shima, but the ties to real-life Japan are undeniable in the way that various Japanese words, salutations, and names of weapons and clothing are used throughout the story. Personally, I enjoy that this isn't yet another fantasy world set in a vaguely Western European setting. I also love the steampunk elements although there is some pretty nasty body horror involved with that side of the story. That said, I can understand how people either from Japan or those who are simply knowledgeable about Japan might take issue with how this really more based on anime than actual Japanese culture (at least it did to me as someone who has only a pedestrian understanding of Japanese culture and doesn't really watch much anime). Equally perplexing might be the "gaijin" who seem to be white people, but it was truly unclear to me whether they were inspired by Norse Vikings, Russians, or some other group entirely. The use of Japanese within the prose itself is probably what makes this such a glaring issue for so many and I did find this element a little distracting/confusing since this isn't really set in Japan even though I like how words like "tanto" are used instead of "short sword" since they were more specific to the objects or articles of clothing in question.
All of this out of the way, I do still find Shima to be an interesting fantasy nation. Things have never been bleaker in it as rebellion is ablaze and the machinations of The Guild seem to be killing the earth, tainting the air, and poisoning the water. The political aspects of this particular entry were really interesting and it definitely felt like there were some real stakes at play when it came to the fate of the empire and the land itself. We do also get to see slightly more of the larger world, but most of the story is confined to Kigen which felt like a slightly missed opportunity, especially since Yukiko essentially goes on an odyssey that is completely unrelated to everything else happening in the story.
There are far too many "main" characters to really talk about one at a time and doing so could probably be considered to be spoilers anyway. One thing that is worth noting is that while the first book definitely had shifting perspectives, I still distinctly felt like it was Yukiko's story. This time around, I would definitely consider this much more of an ensemble story in which Yukiko's arc felt oddly inconsequential for most of the book. While I really liked all the different characters that the story follows, constantly switching around in a round-robin style rotation did get tiresome and served to slow things down, especially during the second act of the story. All the different plotlines do come together at the end as expected (not necessarily in a predictable way, just that I would have been annoyed if they didn't all connect in some way), but I had to wonder if there wasn't a more efficient way to get all the pieces into place.
Largely due to the perpetual perspective shifting during the second act of the story, I did feel as though the plot meandered along even more so than how things built up slowly in the first book. I couldn't tell if this was just a case of "middle book syndrome" or if it was a deliberate choice to tell a variety of more character-driven narratives in tandem with one another. Either way, I did feel a bit of a drag toward the books' second act after a much more exciting first act that focused more on Yukiko. The third and final act then flies by at a breakneck pace which sort of left me feeling like the pacing was both too fast and too slow. Things do get wrapped up for the most part, but there is also a clear lead in to the third book in the trilogy which I am excited to pick up though I hope that the narrative will flow a little better for me.
I mentioned before that this is a lot more gruesome of a story. Kristoff's style is very descriptive (which I love), but can also be very visceral (which sometimes turned my stomach). The gore and straight up body horror can be a bit much at times although those things do add a sort of tension when you never know if something horrific is going to happen to a character. There's also a lot more explicit content this time around with rape being something of a recurring theme. Sometimes the violence and the sexual assault felt essential to the plot, but often, I just found it to be a bit gratuitous so I am hoping the final book chills out a little bit on both fronts.
Even though this is quite a bit longer than the first book, I do still appreciate that this isn't a massive tome of a book to get through. It's definitely on the longer end for me, but is still a perfectly manageable fantasy novel to get through even if you are really busy, especially since the shorter chapters give lots of great break points for those that like to read to the end of a chapter before putting a book down.
I bought all three of these books in their hardcover editions years ago (sort of an impulse buy) since the cover art looks amazing and I loved the concept as well as the length of these. KINSLAYER's hardcover edition feels nice to hold while reading and the interior fonts/formatting/chapter headings/maps were just as stunning as in STORMDANCER.
This series does seem to be a love it or hate it type of situation. I am still very much in the camp of those who get a lot of enjoyment out of reading it, but I do acknowledge the concerns others have expressed. In spite of the book marketing that's literally present on the cover itself, this is not a Japanese steampunk with a strong female protagonist in that this is not Japan and you actually won't even see as much of Yukiko as you would expect this time (though there are other great female leads who get a lot of page time). If you enjoyed the first entry, then you will likely enjoy KINSLAYER, but if you didn't, then I don't think there is anything here that will change your mind about the series.