Review: Stormdancer

 

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff is the first book of The Lotus War Trilogy. It was named one of the best teen books of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews. The fantasy world Kristoff creates is imaginative and rich, full of mythology and great plot twists. The book is marketed as “Japanese Steampunk” and does not disappoint. It has chainkatanas—and yes, a chainkatana is a katana that is also a chainsaw. It has shuriken-throwers—weapons that spit out throwing stars like a machine gun. It is all pretty cool, truth be told.

The story is set on the fantasy island of Shima—or as I like to call it, the island of It’s-Totally-Not-Japan-You-Guys. Shima’s technology is all powered by “chi,” a fuel derived from a plant called the blood lotus (or as I like to call it, It’s-Totally-Not-Fossil-Fuel-You-Guys). The pollution from the chi exhaust has devastated Shima’s ecosystems, and it has induced a fatal disease called blacklung in a large portion of the population. To avoid this, everyone must wear filtered breathers or cover their mouths with cloths in hopes of preventing the deadly smog from ruining their lungs. The atmosphere has become so depleted that the sun’s radiation is no longer filtered properly, so everyone must wear polarized goggles to protect their eyes during the day. Almost all of the island’s animal population has been decimated.

The blood lotus itself is an interesting plant—not only can it be converted to chi, it also can be smoked for recreation. Many people—known as lotus-fiends—are addicted to it. The roots can be used to create a deadly toxin, which in smaller doses can be used as a sedative. It is such a lucrative crop that almost every farmer on the island wants to grow it—except for the region of Daiyakawa, which is reserved for the nation’s food growing. Blood lotus has an unfortunate side effect on the environment, however—it eventually depletes the soil so that it can no longer yield anything. Crop rotation does nothing to prevent this. However, the use of the fertilizer “inochi” (provided, incidentally, by the same people who provide the lotus seed) can stave off the killing of the land. Already, however, a huge portion of Shima has been consumed by dead lands, known as “The Stain.” The Lotus Guild (or as I like to call it, It’s-Totally-Not-Monsanto-You-Guys)is responsible for everything pertaining to blood lotus and chi, as well as developing the technology.

Because Shima’s resources are becoming so depleted, they are waging war on the neighboring country in order to procure more lands—and also, they claim, the gaijin are just plain evil.

The plot begins with the emperor of Shima deciding that he wants a griffin—or as they are also called, arashitora (literally Japanese for ‘stormtiger,’ though often translated in the book as ‘thunder tiger’). He sends his royal hunter out to find one, despite the fact that arashitora have been extinct for decades. The hunter, Masaru, brings his sixteen-year-old daughter Yukiko (the protagonist) along. Yukiko is blessed with a gift known as the Kenning, which allows her to commune with the minds of beasts—however, the Lotus Guild is obsessed with eliminating everyone with this gift from the island, calling it a sign of impurity. Yukiko has been careful to keep her gift hidden, though she makes a mistake which almost gets her caught. However, nothing happens and so they proceed with their seemingly futile hunting trip. However, they do find an arashitora and even successfully capture it—except it destroys their sky-ship in the process, causing them to crash. Yukiko is separated from everyone and finds herself alone with the arashitora, whom she names Buruu, and they begin to form a tenuous relationship.

There were a lot of things I really liked about this book. Kristoff’s writing style is rich and descriptive, and he is masterful at producing suspense. The action he writes is so easy to visualize, it many times feels like you are watching an anime. The best descriptive moment in the book is, in my opinion, when an individual gets shot: Kristoff describes it so vividly and accurately it’s chill-inducing. There are a lot of great moments besides that, but that particular bit was so memorable. The plot twists are also great. I also loved the mythology—I’m not versed enough in Japanese mythology to know whether or not Kristoff is simply borrowing mythology or has invented his own, but I like it a lot. The arashitora is a cool spin on the griffin—it is half tiger, rather than lion, and it has the ability to send massive claps of thunder from its wings. And, I admit, I was a sucker for the chainswords.

I also liked the fact that, despite the fact that the story is essentially a man-is-destroying-the-earth story, Kristoff was quite creative in how he portrayed it. While it becomes obvious that the blood lotus is a metaphor for fossil fuels, and the idea that wars are being fought over fossil fuels, and so on, it is still creative. I loved it, actually. It’s one of the few pollution-apocalypse stories that I really enjoyed. It feels less like the message is being shoved down your throat and more like it’s simply part of a fully realized fantasy world. This is one great thing about fantasy: it allows you to explore real-world issues in a nonthreatening way, and Kristoff did an excellent job with it.

One thing I did not like about this story, though, is that Shima is essentially Japan. It’s not a fantasy world that resembles Japan—it’s just straight-up Japan with a different name. While I get that the idea was for this to be Japanese steampunk, there could have been a few more differences. They use Japanese for everything, and even call the gangsters “Yakuza.” Hence, it feels like the author is shouting, “This is totally not Japan, you guys, except that it is.” It still made for an enjoyable story, and I realize the story would not have worked if it was actually Japan, being as the other fantasy elements would not have fit in. Nevertheless, I felt like it was a little too much. It’s one thing to model a fantasy culture on an existing one, another thing to simply lift the culture entirely.

In a similar vein, it would seem that Kristoff did not do quite enough research on Japanese stuff—at least in one case. First off, chi is a Chinese concept, not a Japanese one. Second, I’m not that versed in Japanese, but I have a textbook of basic Japanese on my bookshelf and I have done my fair share of perusing on Wikipedia. I know enough to understand how honorific suffixes work—and that they are just that: suffixes. Kristoff uses the suffix “-sama” (basically equivalent to ‘master’ or simply an address to someone significantly higher in rank) as an address—for example, “Thank you, Sama.” This is blatantly incorrect and made a lot of reviewers on Amazon mad. This is another issue with completely lifting another culture—you have to get it exactly right or you’re in trouble.

All in all, I recommend this book. However, as a caveat to those who might be researching this book to see if it is appropriate for their teen, be aware that two teen characters do have sex with each other. It is glossed over with a cutaway, basically a sort of “They were kissing passionately, and then afterward…” thing. This is at least tasteful, but some parents may still object to their teens reading this. Also be aware that there is a fair amount of language: D, G-D, F, etc.  There is also a lot of violence—enough that the book might earn an R-rating if an exactly faithful movie was made of it. In some ways, it reminded me of the gore you see in martial arts movies and anime—extremely exaggerated bloodshed.

Stormdancer is an exciting story with lots of fun plot twists and great characters. Its foibles are, in my opinion, far outweighed by its good moments, making it worth reading. People who like lots of action and excitement will love this book.

Have you read Stormdancer? What are your thoughts on it?

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Review: The Castle of Llyr

The Castle of Llyr is the third book in Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain. As I have come to expect after reading two of Alexander’s books, the story proved to be engaging and enchanting.

However, I had a lot of issues with the book, mostly due to the fact that the teaser-line for this book on the inside jacket of The Black Cauldron led me to believe this book would focus predominantly on Eilonwy, thus giving her a chance to shine. Despite how much Eilonwy annoys me, I do like her quite a bit—and like her even more for having watched Disney’s failure of a take on her character. So I was excited to see more of the book version of Eilonwy.

I was disappointed.

Don’t misunderstand me—The Castle of Llyr is a fun, entertaining book with lots of heroics and a charming story to tell, but Eilonwy has very little in the way of an active role. Instead, the book focuses mainly on Taran and his character development. Considering that Taran is the main character of the series, this should not come as a shock, I suppose. However, the marketing set me up for a different story. I mean, it said something to the effect of “Eilonwy must learn to be a young lady and not a heroine among heroes.” That says to me, “This is a story about Eilonwy!” In truth, it is a fraction of the story and all of her character development is tossed in at the end in a rushed fashion.

Once I had gotten over my disappointment, I was able to analyze and appreciate the story a little more clearly.

The book begins with Taran escorting Eilonwy to the Isle of Mona, where she is to learn how to be a proper princess. A ship from Mona comes to meet them, led by Prince Rhun. Prince Rhun, as Taran does not learn until much later, is going to be betrothed to Eilonwy—which I could see coming a mile away, by the by. However, Rhun is basically a clumsy oaf and is not good at anything, and Taran dislikes him a lot. Taran does not like the idea of Rhun even talking to Eilonwy, and is obviously jealous before even finding out the two are going to be betrothed. Once on Mona, Taran runs into Gwydion, who is hiding under the guise of a shoemaker in order to thwart what he believes is a plot against Eilonwy. Achren, the enchantress from The Book of Three, is back, and she wants Eilonwy for her own purposes. Eilonwy is captured and the rest of the book is about Rhun, Taran, and Fflewder Fflam trying to rescue her.

I thought, in the midst of all the excitement and entertainment, there was a pretty profound message. Glew, a tiny man who creates a potion to make himself large so that he can earn some respect, is constantly referred to as a small man despite the fact that he is now a giant. Fflewder remarks that the size of a man has very little to do with his physical size. I think this is a valuable lesson for young men in particular, especially in a society which emphasizes strength and physical prowess as the only way to be considered a “man.” Lots of men drink potions (protein drinks) in order to make themselves bigger and more powerful, but young boys need to learn that it is the size of their heart that makes them men—and that a man can be as big as a bodybuilder, but if his mind is small and cruel, so is he. It’s a great message, and young women can learn from it too. While women mostly focus on being smaller rather than larger, this message that our exterior size has nothing to do with the values that matter is still a valid point.

I have to include a couple more things I really loved about the book, but they come with a spoiler alert. Skip the following two paragraphs if you want to avoid the spoilers.

This is a paragraph with a spoiler! At the end of the book, there is a rather profound message for young women as well. Eilonwy, in order to defeat Achren, has to destroy a book of spells which would have given her the ability to be the most powerful enchantress in all of Prydain. Disappointed, she says, “Now I shall never be an enchantress. There’s nothing left for me now except being a girl.” To this, Gwydion gently replies, “That is more than enough cause for pride.” Not only does this echo The Book of Three’s lesson for Taran that there is no shame in a simple life, it stands strongly against the “like a girl” sentiment that is so rampant in our society. Why should being a girl be something negative? Gwydion’s statement here suggests that there is an inherent value in femaleness, regardless of how that femaleness takes shape. It’s an interesting message in a largely male-dominated story. Yes, Eilonwy ends up having to learn how to be a proper lady (which in this case means domestic pursuits and etiquette), but many of Taran’s pursuits at Caer Dallben are domestic, too—taking care of a garden, for example. This is a repeating theme for the series: domestic pursuits are just as much cause for pride as heroic pursuits, which is another idea that is being lost in our society today. While Eilonwy’s consignment to a “ladylike” fate may be deconstructed and reviled by second- and third-wave feminism, I think it’s still a good message for girls—and really, is no different than the message learned by Taran in The Book of Three.

This is another paragraph with a spoiler! One of my first impressions of the book upon closing it was this: “Eilonwy was a total damsel in distress in this book! She had no agency!” However, upon further reflection, I realized that Eilonwy saved herself and defeated Achren almost single-handedly. The only thing the boys of the story did was to put the tools to do so in Eilonwy’s hands. Once Eilonwy had the book of spells and her magical bauble, she overthrew Achren’s mind control. Taran, despite the fact that he spent the whole book wanting to save Eilonwy, found himself powerless in the end. All of the power rested in Eilonwy’s hands. So, while she still was a damsel in distress for most of the book, she definitely had agency, even when under a powerful spell. This is the third time Alexander has taken saving the day right out of Taran’s hands and plopped it into someone else’s. I have to wonder if this will still be the case in the two remaining books. It would be really interesting if it was.

At any rate, I think that Eilonwy’s role in these books, while superficially seeming to be anti-feminist, actually has a great message that is empowering to women.

End spoilers.

There was little about the book which I did not like, as most of my disappointment was washed away with reflection on the story. It was not as powerful a story as The Black Cauldron, but it was still an entertaining read which both put me on edge and had me laughing at the same time. It’s one more book in The Chronicles of Prydain that I recommend to any lover of fantasy stories.

Have you read The Castle of Llyr? What did you think of it? Was Eilonwy’s character in this a feminist triumph or failure?

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